By Mark Sachs
“And for you, madam?”
“Hmm, I’m not sure. What’s particularly sinister today?”
Here we go, Michelle sighed to herself.
The teenage girl stared daggers at the woman sitting across from her at the café’s outdoor table. From the long, high-heeled boots, to the black leather outfit that aggressively failed to conceal her tall and voluptuous figure, to the impractical spiked shoulder pads and swirling black cape, to the long black hair and the teardrop tattoo under one eye, all topped off with a look of devilish merriment: every inch of her seemed to be – and was – carefully designed to draw the maximum amount of attention from everyone around her.
“Sinister, madam?” The waiter looked dubious. He must be new, Michelle thought. Most people in the town of Tesla were used to this sort of thing by now.
“You know. Sinister. Evil.”
The waiter continued to look blank. The devilish smile on the woman’s face grew.
“Fit for one whose heart is filled with the blackest amorality and greed. One who is as ruthless as she is beautiful! One who will see all who would resist her ascent die before sword and flame!” In her enthusiasm the woman stood on her chair and put one foot onto the table, the spiked heel of a black leather thigh-high boot scattering the tableware as she gestured at the other diners. “Yes, I desire a lunch fit for none less than the rightful future ruler of this world -- myself, Marigold the Sorceress!!”
Mission accomplished: everyone in the café was staring. Always a show when Marigold is around. Michelle wanted to die, but that was her usual state when out with her boss-slash-master-slash-who-knows-what in public so she was able to mostly maintain her composure.
“So, uh…” Marigold leaned down towards the waiter. “What d’ya got?”
The waiter frowned. “Well, there’s… the stew?”
“Is it evil?”
The waiter glanced around and lowered his voice. “I don’t know about evil, but it is pretty nasty.”
“Excellent. I’ll have that.” Marigold hopped down from the table and clamped her arm around Michelle’s shoulders like a vise, making her jump. “And my scrawny and undernourished assistant Michelle will have a double portion.”
“Wait, Marigold, I already –”
“There she is!” boomed a voice from behind them, across the village square.
The two of them twisted around to see a group of people marching towards them past the nonfunctioning fountain in the middle of the square. Michelle couldn’t decide whether she should be alarmed by their weapons or baffled by their outfits.
“Who are these guys?” said Marigold. “You don’t think the zoning commission sent them, do you? It’s not my fault that inspector felt ‘intimidated.’”
“I’m pretty sure they’re not the zoning commission,” Michelle said, straightening her thick glasses to get a better look at the group.
“Marigold the Sorceress! We’ve tracked you down at last!” announced their apparent leader, a wiry young man with carefully disarranged blond hair. He wore a skin-tight blue bodysuit and carried a sword almost as tall and broad as he was over his shoulder.
Marigold sighed, stood up, kicked her chair backwards and faced the group. Her arm still rested heavily on Michelle’s shoulder, keeping her pinned in her seat. “Okay, so what are you jokers supposed to be?”
“Ha!” sneered the young man as he brandished his sword. “My name is Ray Vincent. Don’t forget it.”
“Mika Lawrence,” giggled the black-haired teenage girl hanging on Ray’s arm. Her figure-hugging sleeveless white shirt and black miniskirt, not to mention the impressive figure they hugged, made Michelle want to shrink even more into her shapeless brown robes. Mika had a short-handled warhammer covered in glowing runes slung at her left hip.
“Kerrigan,” stated the tall, muscular, dark-skinned man standing behind the couple. He peered carefully at them through the pince-nez glasses on his nose as he shouldered a rifle as big in comparison to him as Ray’s sword was to Ray.
“Eiko!” chirped a voice from somewhere near Kerrigan’s knees. Standing there was a girl of what could have been no more than eight, wearing a frilly pink-and-yellow outfit with curly-toed shoes and an enormous bow in her blond hair.
“And Kappa!” The girl cheerfully rapped the shoulders of… Michelle couldn’t figure out what it was. Some sort of green-painted automaton about as tall as Eiko and about as wide as it was tall, shaped like a morbidly obese troll with fangs, bug-eyes and a spectacular underbite.
There was an awkward pause as the other members of the party glanced back over their shoulders at a handsome young man with long black hair and a broodingly dark red outfit with a pair of curved swords in the scabbards at his hips. The young man stood silently, arms folded, lips pursed.
“Um, that’s Vail,” Mika said, finally. “He doesn’t talk much.”
Vail said nothing.
“And I,” concluded Ray, “am Ray Vincent! We’re here to put an end to your nefarious schemes, Marigold!”
Michelle glanced over, and up, at her boss-slash-master-slash-whatever. Marigold’s usual expression of smug superiority had vanished, replaced by one of shock.
“I don’t believe this,” Marigold managed after a moment. “You seven…”
“Six,” Michelle said. “Ray introduced himself twice.”
“You six,” Marigold continued without a pause, “are a party of adventurers here to stop me!” A delighted expression flooded over her face. “At last! After so many years, I’ve hit the big time!” She burst out laughing and glanced down at Michelle, who was quietly struggling to get out from under her arm. “And you said it’d never happen, assistant! Well, don’t you feel foolish!”
“I never said –”
Marigold shoved Michelle away, almost knocking her out of her seat, and stepped forward. “So, Ray Vincent… you want to stop me from taking over the world?”
Magelight illuminated the front of the café and its interior. Surrounded by glowing green sparks of ethereal magic, Marigold began to rise up into the air. Diners started getting out of their seats and backing out of the café. Folks might be used to this sort of thing around here, but that also meant they knew when it was time to start looking for the exits.
“I’ll just get your order started, shall I?” the waiter murmured before disappearing politely as well. Professional, some part of Michelle’s mind noted. He’ll go far.
“You naïve fools!” Marigold laughed. “Your appearance on this day – no, at this very second -- was just the latest part of my diabolical plan. You haven’t the faintest idea what’s really going on, do you?”
“What?” said Ray.
“Yeah, what?” said Michelle, getting out of her seat. “Two seconds ago, you had no idea who these guys we – ow!”
From her position in the air, Marigold had jabbed Michelle in the shoulder with the four-inch spiked heel at the bottom of one of her boots. It hurt quite a lot.
“Ix-nay on the critical inking-thay, assistant,” Marigold said in a stage whisper. Then, more loudly, “Yes! You remain shockingly ignorant of the true reason why you are here!”
“’The true reason’? What do you mean by that, Marigold?” Ray demanded, again brandishing his sword dramatically.
“You’ll find out soon enough! Now, Ray Vincent, my nemesis –” Marigold giggled in a surprisingly girlish fashion as she said the words – “I’d love to stay and chat about my villainous genius, or perhaps my great beauty, but the world waits for no one! However, not to worry. My assistant, Michelle ‘The Whirlwind,’ will be pleased to entertain you.”
“What?” Michelle said, alarmed.
Suddenly, her arms were dragged down in front of her as a weight materialized in her hands and crashed to the ground. She looked down to see that she was holding a giant broadsword, an impractical and heavy wedge of metal that looked more appropriate to a stage play than a battle. She could barely hold up its extravagantly carved pommel, much less wield it.
“Michelle,” said Marigold, “teach these fools a lesson.”
“Wait! Marigold, I don’t know how to –”
“Ta!” Marigold vanished in a flash of light and clap of thunder. The gust of air flying into her former location knocked over glasses all over the now-empty café.
“Marigold!” shouted Ray.
“Wait!” shouted Michelle fruitlessly.
Why does she do this? Why does she have to be so… so…
Michelle looked over at the angry party of adventurers, now turning to face her and raising their weapons.
Why does she have to be so Marigold?
“I, uh…” Michelle explained.
“Very well,” sneered Ray Vincent. “We accept your challenge, Michelle the Whirlwind! Prepare yourself!”
He gripped his oversized sword in a ready stance. Kerrigan raised the immense rifle to his shoulder. Vail had drawn his twin blades. Mika, a look of surprising hatred on her face, had her hammer drawn; the runes carved on it were glowing. Eiko was… Michelle wasn’t entirely certain where this was going, but Eiko was holding a microphone and looked like she was getting ready to sing.
I’m going to die, Michelle realized. I’m going to die for that idiot sorceress, and it’s going to be so stupid. I’m going to –
No. You’re not going to die, Michelle. You can beat them.
She almost choked. She was pretty sure she hadn’t thought that. What? Who – How are you –
Don’t worry about the details for now. Just trust me. If you believe in yourself, you can win!
Michelle blinked. “I… I can win?” she said aloud.
She stared at Ray and his group, and then the sword in her hands. Somehow, without conscious thought, she had raised it in a competent grip almost perfectly mirroring Ray’s. It didn’t seem quite as heavy as before…
She stared at the group of adventurers again.
“Yeah, right,” she said, flung the sword away, and bolted into the café.
“After her!” Ray Vincent shouted, and the adventurers stormed ahead in pursuit.
* * * *
This is the worst day, Michelle thought to herself as she pelted through the cobblestone streets of Tesla, dodging horse-drawn carts and surprised townspeople. This is worse than the time Marigold made me clean up all those cows she blew up trying to summon a demon. This is worse than the time Marigold took all those hostages at Winterfair, and refused to release them until she was proclaimed winner of the beauty contest. This is worse than the time Marigold –
It didn’t miss her notice that all the worst parts of her sixteen years of life had involved Marigold in some fashion.
“There she is!” shouted a voice from far behind. Michelle skidded to one side and almost tripped as she glanced back and saw Ray and Kerrigan. Ray was pointing, and Kerrigan was raising his gun to his shoulder. People screamed and scattered.
A deafening report shattered windows up and down the street. Michelle did trip this time, going heavily and painfully to the ground as something huge sailed lazily overhead. Time slowed down and she could swear the projectile cast a vast, cool shadow on her as it drifted by.
The artillery shell thumped into the storefront at the far end of the street and exploded. Michelle’s ears rang; gouts of smoke and debris rolled past, hiding everything. Dust and pebbles rained down from the sky. Pieces of masonry as tall as she was thumped to the ground all around her prone form.
She knows I can’t fight. She knows I’m useless. She knows this, so why does she do this to me?
Michelle wanted to lie there and die, but something wouldn’t let her.
Maybe I don’t want to give Marigold the satisfaction.
Coughing, she pulled herself to her feet, straightened her glasses – miraculously unbroken -- and staggered into a nearby alley.
Not that Marigold would care if I lived or died, though. Or maybe even notice.
Michelle hesitated. Something made her glance up. She hadn’t heard anything, but –
She dove to one side and barely avoided being skewered as Vail the swordsman barreled down from one of the tenement roofs next to her. He landed perfectly and instantly vaulted to his feet, brandishing his twin blades.
“Uh,” stammered Michelle, “you… Vail, right? Hi. Um…”
The look in his eyes was unreadable as he stood. Michelle searched her mind for something, anything, that she could say that would get her out of this.
“You… you wouldn’t hit a girl, right?”
Vail leapt – no, blurred – forward, blades flashing. Michelle screamed (like a girl, something in her useless brain crowed, maybe that will help) and dove to one side, the steel brushing past inches from her skull. She felt a few strands of hair drift away as she blundered forward, bounced off something soft and resilient, and crashed to the ground again.
Woozily, she looked forward to see a pair of expensive yet practical red combat boots inches from her face.
“Hmpf. So you’re Marigold’s hired gun, are you? ‘Michelle the Whirlwind’?”
Michelle’s gaze groggily tracked upwards past about a million miles of legs, a black miniskirt with an empire waistline, and an alarmingly oversized bust to land on the face of Mika Lawrence, filled with the same inexplicable hatred she had seen at the café.
“I have nothing but pity for you.” The giggly, clinging figure at the café was a memory. “You devoted your life to the service of evil, and now, your crimes have caught up with you.”
Michelle cautiously pulled herself to her feet, her head still pounding. “Look, I didn’t – this is –”
“For the cruelty you inflicted on Ray,” Mika snarled, “I will show you no mercy!” She raised her hammer above her head. Its runes glowed brilliantly and energy began to crackle above it.
“What did I do?” Michelle wailed.
“I summon the ultimate destructive power! Prepare yourself!” The blaze of energy hovering above the hammer was too bright to look at, but Michelle couldn’t move, paralyzed by fear. Bricks and bits of wood were snapping off the buildings on either side of the alley and tumbling up into the air.
“Not that spell!” shouted Kerrigan over the deafening roar of gathering magical energies, as he and Ray emerged from the alley entrance behind Michelle.
“Why not?” asked Ray.
“Oh,” Mika laughed suddenly, lowering the hammer. Untethered, the ball of energy drifted upwards, screaming. “Right. Do not unleash the ultimate destructive power at point-blank range. I should have written it on my hand.”
The spell broke. Michelle ran.
* * * *
I think I lost them, Michelle thought, as she ducked out of a maze of alleyways and into a crowd of townspeople. Busy as they were staring across the canal at a black mushroom cloud drifting over the town center, they paid little attention to her as she weaved through the crowd and into another alley on the opposite side. Just the way she liked it, although she had to be honest with herself and admit she didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter.
Good riddance. Still… there’s something about all this that doesn’t add up. Michelle frowned. That girl said something about not forgiving us for what we did to Ray. But we’ve never even met these guys before, have we? Michelle certainly hadn’t. As for Marigold, the sorceress was a lot of things, most of them terrible, but a liar was usually not one of them. Her surprise at the adventurers’ appearance had sounded like the real deal.
Then again, Marigold is the sort of person who could ruin someone’s life completely by accident and then forget she’d done it --
Michelle groaned and turned around. Standing there at the mouth of the alleyway was Eiko, the little girl in the cutesy outfit. Next to her was… whatever Kappa was. She still couldn’t really figure that one out.
“Oh,” Michelle sighed. “I forgot about you.”
“You’re going to eat those words, Michelle the Whirlwind!” said Eiko gleefully. “Still… I’m kind of impressed. You beat Ray and everyone without even using a weapon. That’s not bad.”
“Uh, thanks,” Michelle said, because it seemed like the thing to say.
“You sure don’t look tough. What’s your secret?”
“A lifetime of disappointment?” Michelle offered.
Eiko looked at her blankly.
“Never mind. I guess you wouldn’t understand. Look, is this going anywhere? I have to go back to the castle and take a bath and maybe quit my job.”
“Not so fast!” Eiko said eagerly, as if she had spent hours practicing the words in front of a mirror. “You’re not going anywhere, Michelle the Whirlwind!”
“Because I’m going to take – you – down!” announced the little girl with great drama. “Get ready, Kappa!”
“Kappa! Kappa!” said the automaton standing next to her in a deep, whirring voice, as it raised its mechanical fists.
“Okay…” she said at last. “Look, kid, you’re what, eight?”
“I’m eight and three-quarters!”
“Right. Listen, I’m not going to fight you. Go home.”
She turned to leave.
“Don’t treat me like a child!” howled Eiko from behind as Michelle walked away. “Come back he --”
There was a crash, and a loud wail of pain. Michelle looked back to see Eiko on the ground, holding her leg, tears in her eyes.
“Uh,” Michelle said, flummoxed, “are you okay?”
“You big dumb meanie!” Eiko cried. “You sneak-attacked me! You made me trip!”
“I did not!” Michelle protested. “How could I? I was all the way over here!”
“Oh, no! Too late! Now you’re going to pay!”
From somewhere, music began to play. Michelle looked around, baffled, and finally realized it was coming from Kappa, the automaton. Her ears were still ringing from the abuse they’d taken earlier, and between that and the extraordinarily poor sound quality she couldn’t even identify what kind of music it was. It was almost certainly music, though. Either that, or a recording of a grain silo filled with angry cats.
Eiko reached into her jacket and produced… yes, Michelle was right, it had been a microphone. As the music rebounded around the alleyway Eiko began to sing.
“We’re Eiko and Kappa!
The dangerous duo!
Our enemies flee
When they see us two-o!”
Michelle stared. Behind Eiko, the automaton was dancing.
“We got beauty and brains!
We got rhythm and rhyme!
And if you don’t like our song
We’ll pound you ‘till you cry!”
The automaton actually had pretty good moves.
“We’re the ones you can’t scare!
We’ll take any dare!
We’ll beat up anyone, anywhere
Because we’re evil’s worst nightmare!”
It’s going to be hard to explain this dream to people when I wake up, floated through Michelle’s shell-shocked brain.
“Bad guys underestimate us!
They think they’ll have us for lunch!
But they’ll be thinking different
When they get… Kappa PUNCH!”
“Kappa! KAPPA!” With that, the automaton’s fist sprang out of its socket like an arrow and crunched right into the hypnotized Michelle’s face. Fireworks exploded behind her eyelids, the world filled with pain and everything went black.
The road drifted by beneath Michelle’s cheap, thin-soled boots. One foot after another, just keep going, because no matter how much everything hurts what else can you do?
She had come to a few minutes after that punch to find herself alone in the alleyway. Apparently Eiko had been satisfied with knocking her senseless, although the little girl had been canny enough to steal all of her pocket money before running off to presumably rendezvous with her gang and brag about her great victory.
Defeated by an eight-year-old girl and a stuffed animal, Michelle thought to herself. Sounds about right. She tried to summon the usual anger, but it just wouldn’t come. Marigold put me in this situation. But I’m the one who was a disappointment, like always.
Night had fallen, the Moon and the Second Moon had set long ago, and she stumbled against an especially large stone in the road – more of a muddy track at this point, really. Not a lot of traffic on Ancient Flying Castle Way, this far out of town and up in the foothills. Steadying herself against one of the dead, gnarled trees that lined the roadway (Marigold made it a point to come out twice a week to burn the greenery, just to make sure that the desired impression was made on what few visitors ever came by) Michelle looked up.
And up, and up. Beyond a tall, spiked metal fence that ran along the far side of the road was a vast crater, hundreds of feet across. Floating in the air above the crater was a chunk of rock equally as large, suspended in the air in defiance of all reason and physics, kept from (presumably) drifting away into the stratosphere by a half-dozen immense chains with links the size of a horse-drawn carriage that anchored the floating island to the bedrock. And standing on the rock, of course, was the Ancient Flying Castle, silhouetted against the evening stars.
Great obsidian curtain walls, eighty feet high. Behind the walls, a forest of cruelly spiked blackrock towers and spires and three different clocks, each telling the time in a different, cursed realm, or so it was said. A yellow glow emitted from a few of the windows, but most of the castle was dark and lifeless, giving the impression of immense age. The castle had been here, or so it was again said, before time itself had started properly. It stood above the endless oceans of the beginning of creation and stayed there, silent and immobile, as the continent and the mountains had grown up to meet it. And it would be there still when the continent and the mountains had worn back down to nubs and vanished below the waters again.
Or so, as mentioned, it was said.
Michelle wasn’t certain how much if any of that was true, or how many of the rumors had even been started by Marigold herself. She knew the castle had been here for at least ten years, because that’s how long she’d been living in it as Marigold’s “assistant.” Beyond that, well, who can say?
Approaching the castle gates, Michelle straightened her smudged glasses and peered through them. A ramshackle rope-and-wood bridge stretched from the sheer cliff edge on the side of Ancient Flying Castle Way up and towards the castle proper. It spoiled the majesty of the scene a bit; supposedly a magical stairway appropriate to its surroundings existed, someplace, but since Marigold the Sorceress could fly and teleport and whatever-else she had never bothered to investigate the issue. It didn’t matter to her, and so therefore it didn’t matter at all.
I have to get out of here, Michelle thought.
* * * *
“Assistant!” crowed Marigold, slamming open the door to the tiny cell without knocking. She had one hand behind her back. “You’ve returned! I didn’t hear you…”
Her eyes roved over the room. Michelle was sitting on her straw bed, a rucksack on her lap, her few possessions scattered about the narrow, high-ceilinged chamber.
“…come in,” Marigold continued without missing a beat. “You should have said something.”
“Listen, Marigold,” Michelle said at last, “I have to tell you something. I --”
“Later,” Marigold ruthlessly stepped on this. “I have a present for you, assistant. You dropped this in town.”
Michelle turned her head to look. The sorceress was holding the sword she had produced in the café.
“Eh?” smiled Marigold hatefully. “Eh? You’re glad to have such a considerate evil master, aren’t you? Admit it.”
Michelle dragged herself to her feet and stared. She doesn’t have any idea, does she? She really has absolutely no idea. It wouldn’t be so bad if she was tormenting me on purpose.
“What… what are you thinking!!”
Marigold looked taken aback. “Excuse me?”
“I can't use a sword!” Michelle shouted. “I don't know how to fight! I got beaten by a little kid! I'm no good, don't you understand? I've been here for ten years, why haven't you realized this yet?! Why don’t you…” Tears started to well at the corners of her eyes, and she hated herself for it. “Why don’t you understand? Just stop this? Just let me go?”
Marigold shook her head sorrowfully. “Oh, assistant. Do you have so little faith in me?”
“W-what? Faith in you?”
“Of course, faith in me!” The sorceress stretched her arms out. “I chose you personally to be my very first minion, remember? And I am incapable of error. Therefore, you must the perfect person for the job. The logic is unassailable.”
“Besides! You could have easily defeated all of those heroes one at a time or together, because this is a magic sword.”
“A magic sword,” Michelle repeated levelly. It was easier than trying to come up with words of her own that worked in this conversation.
“And not just any magic sword. This is the sword of swords! The most powerful weapon in the world -- the dreaded Soul-Stealer Blade Xanadu!” Marigold drew the sword smoothly out of its scabbard. It didn’t really look less absurd than it had back in the town square. “Forged out of pure malevolence by the assassin-priests of Un eleven thousand years ago! Lost for millennia in the looming depths of history! And retrieved by me personally after a lengthy and arduous quest!”
“I’m pretty sure there was a quest?” Marigold said, looking momentarily dubious. “There must have been, right? I do lots of stuff, you know. It doesn’t pay to get bogged down in the details. Anyway! None can stand against the wielder of this weapon.” She took Michelle’s unresisting hands and placed the sword in them. “And now it’s yours. What do you say?”
“No, no, you know what? You don’t have to say anything.” Marigold ruffled Michelle’s hair fondly. “I can tell by your shocked silence that I have truly touched your heart.”
The tolling of a vast bell began to echo through the castle.
“Oh!” said Marigold. “It’s almost five o’clock on the Elemental Plane of Shadow. I have to go. You get some rest, assistant. We have an important date coming up.”
The sorceress stepped towards the door.
“You, me… and those so-called heroes. Heh heh heh…”
Still chuckling, Marigold pulled the door shut.
The blockage in Michelle’s mind splintered and came apart, now that she was safely alone. “Dammit!” she shouted. “Marigold, you don’t understand! You don’t understand anything! You…”
She slumped back onto the bed, still holding the sword, and stared at it.
“…I guess I can always leave tomorrow.”
So, you’re not going to throw me away this time? a familiar voice spoke inside her head.
“I can’t,” gasped Michelle. “I… can’t go any more. I give up.”
Panting and wheezing, she leaned against the wall of the practice room Marigold had scared up somewhere in the depths of the castle. In front of her, anchored in the middle of the straw mat at the center of the room, a wooden clockwork training dummy slowly wound itself down. It seemed to brandish its bokken sword one final time at her before expiring, as if to count coup.
She wiped sweat from her brow. At least she wasn’t wearing her heavy assistant’s robes, just the simple peasant shirt and baggy pants she usually had on under them, but she still felt like she was dying in the heat of the stuffy practice room. She stared down at the sword Xanadu in her hands.
“I can’t beat it. I’m no good. I’m sorry.”
You’re trying your best, Michelle.
“Oh, that makes me feel even better,” she snarled, then sighed. “I’m sorry, Xanadu. I’m a lousy person to wield you after all these years.”
I’ll spend as much time training you as you want. It’s not like I had plans, after all.
Michelle paused. “You know… I always thought I was the unluckiest person in the world. I’ve been slaving away for Marigold here in this horrible castle since I was a little kid. But… I guess there are some other people who have problems too, aren’t there.”
Oh, it’s not so bad, having your spirit sealed in a sword. I mean, hey, at least I still have my health.
Michelle coughed, and laughed. She clapped her hand over her mouth in surprise.
Thank you. I’ll be here all week! Because I can’t leave!
“Heh… well.” Michelle struggled upright. “I guess we can feel sorry for each other. Okay… I can try one more time.”
“Practicing hard, assistant? I could hear you halfway across the castle.”
Michelle jumped. “Marigold? Ah, I was just – um –”
“Hmm?” The sorceress gave her a penetrating gaze from where she stood, leaning against the open doorway of the training room, her arms crossed. “You were just what? And who were you talking to about it?”
Don’t tell her about me! the sword said urgently. She doesn’t know!
“Whatever,” said Marigold suddenly, dropping the issue from her attention with an almost audible thud. “Come this way, assistant. I have a mission for you.”
* * * *
Marigold had refused to be drawn on the details, and at any rate Michelle was too busy gasping for air to demand them by the time the two of them had climbed all the stairs to the flat-topped roof of one of the Ancient Flying Castle’s medium-sized towers. Marigold, naturally, wasn’t even breathing hard. The sorceress stretched out a long, pale, perfectly gloved arm to point towards the town of Tesla, hazy in the distance, its harbor glittering in the afternoon sun.
“Do you see that, assistant?”
Finally catching her breath, Michelle squinted towards the harbor, trying to figure out what Marigold was pointing at.
“That… weird ship?” she said cautiously. Parked in the harbor was a large, military-looking boat with a long, flat deck and a winged conning tower, all made of gray metal. An unfamiliar red-and-white flag was painted on its side.
“That is the submarine Aquila. It belongs to those self-proclaimed heroes. Don’t ask me how they got their hands on it, by the way, I’m given to understand it’s a warship stolen from some city across the ocean or other, but they apparently use it to sail the seas, righting great wrongs and such.”
“Okay, so, what’s the plan?”
“Well. To be honest, the arrival of these heroes puts me in a bit of a bind.” Marigold frowned and put her hands together. “You see, my plan for world domination isn’t quite perfected yet.”
“Perfected or started?”
“Perfected, started, same difference, right? So the question is, how can we keep those ‘heroes’ here until I’m ready?”
“Why do you want to keep the heroes here?” asked Michelle.
Marigold gave her a sharp look. “What’s a villain without a hero to contend with? Even if I have no idea why they’re here I can’t let an opportunity like this slip away. This is basic stuff, assistant. Try to keep up. Anyway!” Marigold raised a finger dramatically. “That does bring us to my brilliant insight, wherein I realized we could kill two birds with one stone. What you’re going to do, assistant, is infiltrate the Aquila. You’ll find out why they’re here – what they think I’m up to.”
Michelle already didn’t like the sound of this. “And then?”
“And then… we steal the idea!” Marigold burst out into peals of laughter. “Oh ho ho ho! It can’t lose!”
* * * *
Thanks for not telling Marigold about me, the sword said into her mind. I’ve always kept quiet around her. Maybe it’s irrational, but I’m not sure I can trust her.
“Don’t worry about it,” Michelle answered as she crawled through the Aquila’s ductwork, the sword safely stowed at her side. “That’s the most rational thing I’ve heard in weeks.”
The idea of going on a “mission,” such as it was, was fairly alarming, but Michelle had to admit it had gone smoothly so far. With a single dramatic gesture Marigold had teleported her directly to the Aquila’s deck, neatly avoiding any attention from the sailors, guards, and stevedores hauling cargo to the ships that came and went on the great river that ran past Tesla. A whole row of metal tubes lay open on the water side of the conning tower, apparently to draw fresh air into the great vehicle, and soon they were creeping their way towards the objective.
Well, definitely creeping, anyway, and almost certainly towards something. Possibly a furnace, but for the moment Michelle could pretend that she was making excellent progress.
She halted abruptly. “Hang on a second. I think I hear something.”
The Aquila’s ventilation systems made a lot of rattling, rushing background noise – the submarine didn’t seem to be maintained tremendously well -- but from somewhere ahead and below, she could make out muffled voices raised in argument.
Michelle started crawling forward again, more slowly than before. Around the next corner, there was an open ventilation grill in the bottom of the duct. Cautiously she leaned forward to peer through it.
“It’s them,” she murmured.
Below, the adventurers were gathered around a large conference table. Kerrigan was standing, angrily addressing the group. Vail sat nearby, filing his nails and seemingly paying no attention to the proceedings. Ray was leaning back in his chair on the other side of the table, feet up on the desk, with Mika in the seat next to him clinging to his arm.
“The problem,” Kerrigan said, “is that we don’t know! I’ve never met this Marigold person. I’d never even heard of her before you dragged us all the way out here. She seems like a buffoon, not a villain. Do you have any clue what she’s up to?”
“Does it matter?” said Ray. “We need to stop her.”
“Of course it matters!” Kerrigan snapped. “Let’s say she really is this great threat to the world. Without a clear understanding of what’s going on we could be walking into a trap. And we have no way to narrow down her ultimate objective. Supposing she intends to seize the Shatter Stone? Or free the Grand Griffins? Or even take control of the Kur-Ul-Llath Orc Army? We need more data before we can do anything!”
You do realize, the sword said into Michelle’s mind, that this scheme is completely absurd.
“Oh yeah,” Michelle agreed, as she rapidly scribbled notes onto a tiny notepad with the stub of a pencil. “How many L’s in Kur-Ul-Llath?”
I have no idea. Probably better put in a bunch of extra ones just to be safe.
“We don’t need any more stupid data!” Mika burst out. “Marigold --”
“Mika, I’ve got it under control, there’s no need…” Ray began.
“No! Tell them! Tell them what she did to you!”
Every face in the room turned to Ray, who looked uncharacteristically pained. Michelle stared, too. At that moment, she wouldn’t have moved a muscle for all the money in the world.
“Marigold…” Ray stared down at his feet. “Marigold is responsible for my amnesia.”
“Oh, Ray…” whispered Mika.
“That day a year ago, when Mika found me outside the gates of Archimedea and nursed me back to health. That was the day Marigold did it. She stole everything from me. She has a terrible secret!” Ray shouted suddenly, slamming a palm on the table and making Michelle jump. “A secret that endangers the world. She’s willing to do anything to hide it. And so we have to be willing to do anything to stop her.” He looked around at the collected heroes. “I know I’ve asked a lot of you over the past year. All I’m asking for now is just a little more, the last few steps to the end of our road. We’re so close, and the world is counting on us. Vail? Kerrigan? What do you say?”
There was a long pause.
“God damn it,” Kerrigan muttered. Then, aloud, “All right, Ray. We’re with you.”
“Just a little longer,” Ray nodded. “That’s all I ask. Thank you.”
“I need some coffee.” Kerrigan abruptly turned and left the room. Vail wordlessly trailed after him.
Mika stood up. “I’m sorry, Ray. I shouldn’t have blurted that out.”
“It’s fine.” He waved his hand. “I wasn’t going to be able to hide it forever. They deserved to know.”
“You were tremendously brave to tell them,” she praised him. “I’ll give you a few minutes, okay?”
Mika kissed him on the cheek and stepped out of the room.
Ray sighed, rubbing his eyes. “I can’t believe that worked,” he said, almost too quietly to be heard.
Did you know anything about this? the sword asked her.
“No,” she answered softly. “Marigold’s never said anything about it. It… I don’t know. This doesn’t even sound like her.”
Stealing away somebody’s memories? That’s a very evil sorceress sort of thing to do.
“I was more thinking of the part about the secret.” It was very hard for her to picture Marigold keeping a secret. Even more difficult, if it was genuinely a dark one. Odds are within the day she would blurt it out in the town square to make herself sound important, Michelle thought to herself.
“I don’t know,” she repeated. “There’s just something weird about his story…”
The duct creaked alarmingly and then, before Michelle could react, it snapped free from the ceiling and crashed down onto the conference table, shattering it and breaking into pieces. Momentarily stunned, Michelle looked up from the wreckage and right at Ray Vincent.
“You!” he said.
“Me?” she responded cleverly.
“Michelle the Whirlwind!”
Michelle blinked stupidly for a few moments until the phrase connected with something in her brain.
“Oh!” she said. “Right! Michelle the Whirlwind! That’s me! Uh…” She pulled herself to her feet, noting with dismay that Ray already had a hand on his sword.
“A sneak attack, eh?” he smirked. “Not bad. You almost got me.”
Oh, this is really bad. What would Marigold do in this situation? …Right. She’d claim it had been her idea all along. Let’s try it.
“Yeah… a sneak attack!” Michelle said. “And I came so close, too! Curses!” All right, so far so good, I think he’s buying it. “Unfortunately it looks like you foiled my evil plan, so, I’ll just go --” She began inching towards the door.
“Not so fast!” Ray drew his sword.
“You are our enemy, Michelle the Whirlwind. I can’t allow you to just waltz out of here.”
“Oh.” She hesitated, stared at him, instinctively touched her sword, still slung at her hip. Then some reserve of sheer, reckless bravado she hadn’t known existed came to the fore.
“So… you want to fight me, huh?” She drew Xanadu and held it out in front of her, in an imitation of Ray’s stance. “O-okay! Then let’s get it on!”
I can’t believe I’m doing this.
You’re starting off right, Xanadu told her. The psychological angle is important and you’re seizing it! Now just watch out for –
Ray charged her, swinging a broad stroke out with the giant sword. Nothing subtle, just a mighty strike right for her. Michelle raised her sword in a blind panic and the two blades clanged together.
After a moment, she opened her eyes, to see the blades locked together inches from her face.
I blocked it?
See, there you go.
“Nice try, Ray Vincent!” she shouted in sudden euphoria, backed off and took a wild swing of her own. It bounced off Ray’s blade, but for just a moment she saw a look of surprise on his face.
Then it was gone, replaced with the infuriating smirk again. “You’re going to give me a challenge, Michelle the Whirlwind? Accepted with pleasure.” He responded with a series of swift strikes, far faster than one would expect from the size and unwieldiness of the blade, that drove her back across the room. She blocked every one, Xanadu seeming to intercept each stroke with the minimum effort required, but at the end of it she had been backed into the corner of the conference room with nowhere to retreat.
“Had enough, tool of evil?” Ray sneered, twirling his sword. “Do you surrender? Or should I put you out of your misery?”
She stared at him.
He’s too busy saying dumb things to guard properly, she thought to herself. He’s wide open!
Letting out a scream, she swung upwards, towards his face. Surprised, Ray raised his sword to block her, but Michelle twisted away from the feint and aimed at his undefended chest instead –
At the last possible moment, the sword turned in her hands and the flat of the blade struck Ray’s bicep with tremendous force. He yelled out in pain, his sword slipped from his hands and clattered to the deck, and he slumped into a kneeling position.
Michelle stood over him, dumbfounded, still breathing heavily, Xanadu clutched in her hands.
Did… did you do that for me, Xanadu?
I helped a little, the sword admitted. But it was mostly you.
“You,” breathed Ray Vincent from where he knelt, clutching his arm.
Michelle looked down at him.
“You beat me. Fair and square. You're incredibly strong. I guess what happened back in the town wasn't a fluke, Michelle the Whirlwind.”
“Back in the --? Oh! Right! Yeah!” she said. “When I beat all of you like a drum!” Except for that little girl and her stuffed animal, but never mind that right now. She pointed her sword at him. “And if you cross me again you'll get more of the same!”
Oh my God, I’m kind of getting into this.
“Will you help me up?” Ray extended his hand.
Surprised, Michelle reached out and took it. She was more surprised when he pulled himself all the way to his feet and took her hand in both of his, his face just inches from hers.
“Your talents are wasted in the service of evil. Why don't you join us, instead?”
“What?” Michelle stammered. Incredibly, she felt herself blushing. “I don’t…”
“I promise,” Ray said, “that it's exactly what you've been waiting for all your life.”
She couldn’t pull her gaze away from his electric-blue eyes.
At that moment, the bulkhead door slammed open and Mika Lawrence ran into the conference room, hammer in her hand. “Ray! I heard the noise, are you all –”
She stopped short to take in the tableau.
“Ah, Mika –” Ray began hastily.
“You tool of darkness,” Mika growled, pushing past him towards Michelle. “Are you attempting to seduce my Ray?”
“What? No! No! Absolutely not!” said Michelle frantically, backing away from him. “I’d never do that! I hardly even know him! And what I do know about him is that he’s a pushy, dumb, arrogant, self-centered jerk! Any girl who’d fall for him would have to be…”
Mika’s eyes blazed and she raised her warhammer. Magical energy began to crackle around it.
“…crazy,” Michelle finished with a whisper.
“YOU TAKE BACK WHAT YOU SAID ABOUT HIM!” Mika snarled, and swung the hammer. There was a moment of fire, and then everything went dark.
* * * *
“So, uh,” Michelle said, “you’ve never been to Archimedea?” She patted her clothing and hair again. A little singed, but it could have been a lot worse – Marigold had teleported her out of there just in time. Outside the castle tower’s sitting room window, she could just make out a plume of smoke rising from behind the buildings of Tesla’s harbor.
“I’ve never even heard of it. Anyway, who cares? You got the goods and you demolished their submarine. Fantastic!” Marigold was eagerly flipping through the notes Michelle had taken. “Magical stones, orc armies… this stuff’s dynamite!” She looked up. “Good work, assistant. I knew I could count on you.”
“Y… you did?”
“I said so, didn’t I? Now buzz off and stop bothering me. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
“Uh… okay.” Michelle stepped towards the door, then paused and looked back. “…Thank you, Marigold.”
“Ehh.” The sorceress waved a hand in vague dismissal and didn’t look up from the notes as Michelle closed the portal behind her and started walking back towards her chamber, still a bit lightheaded.
Michelle, said Xanadu, I wasn’t certain whether I should tell you this, but… That sword of Ray’s is a lot lighter than it appears. And he’s not really that good of a fighter.
That’s okay, she thought back. I kind of figured that out myself.
I hope you’re not angry with me. I know you need the confidence boost, but –
No, it’s fine. So he wasn’t very good. It makes sense, I’m not very good either. But… I still beat him. I was better than somebody, for the first time in my life. That’s…
That’s not nothing.
The orc was a nine-foot wall of blue-gray muscle, clad in an intricate arrangement of arm and leg armor, a leather loincloth, and absolutely nothing else. The tiny, deep-set eyes in his richly scarred face stared directly and unblinkingly ahead as he stood at parade rest. This was inconvenient for Michelle as his gaze passed roughly four feet above her head, but the idea of asking him to look at her while he was talking didn’t bear thinking about.
“So, uh…” she began. “Sergeant Krang, you… had a report you wanted to give me?”
“The company is well-situated in the eastern wing of the castle, ma’am!” the orc leader announced. “The barracks remain secure and our third week of training is underway!”
“Great. Excellent.” She took a breath.
“Our third consecutive week.”
“Yes, you said.”
“Without any combat.”
“The men are looking forward to their pay packets tomorrow. Shall I tell them that everything will be made available on time as per our contract?”
“Uh, yes, of course it will.”
The past few weeks around the Ancient Flying Castle had been busier than any Michelle could remember. Securing the Kur-Ul-Llath Orc Army had been surprisingly easy: they had turned out to be a well-trained and well-disciplined company of mercenaries from deep in the anarchic southern kingdoms. Marigold had signed a worryingly extravagant and detailed agreement for their services without even reading it and the orcs had promptly moved in, taking over an entire wing of the castle. It was fine, though -- as long as the money kept coming there wouldn’t be any problems, such as the orc army storming out of the barracks, taking the fortress, and murdering its occupants. Sergeant Krang made sure to remind Michelle of that at every possible opportunity.
Still, since they’re here anyway… “Sergeant,” Michelle began hopefully, “I was, uh, wondering if… You see, we picked up these griffins. Marigold ensorcelled them and, you know, so we’ve got them in the old stables, but… they’re really big and really strong, right? And she didn’t ensorcell them into obeying me, only her, so, uh, when I go down to clean out the stables it gets a little… you know? Fraught.” She raised an arm, showing the giant nip that one of them had taken out of her robe earlier that morning. “Also there’s a lot of verbal abuse too. So is there any chance I could maybe take a few of your guys and…”
“Taking care of livestock is not in our contract, ma’am!” announced Sergeant Krang with absolutely no change in his tone of voice.
“Right, of course,” Michelle said, disappointed.
The stones beneath her feet trembled slightly.
“Okay, well… unless you had anything else?”
“That concludes our report, ma’am! I’ll be returning to the barracks now.”
“Sure thing, sergeant. Stay… frosty?” she tried.
The orc did not reply. Instead, after a pause that seemed calibrated to create the maximum amount of embarrassment, he simply turned with micrometer precision and marched out of the room, ducking under the lintel to keep from striking his bald head on the doorway.
The castle trembled again, a little more strongly this time. A trickle of black dust sprinkled over Michelle’s face.
That third thing they had obtained…
Michelle took off at a dead run.
* * * *
“Marigold, what are you doing!!”
Marigold glanced up from where she was lounging on a chaise in one of the castle towers’ sitting rooms, repeatedly tossing the Shatter Stone up in the air and catching it again. Every time it clapped into her black leather glove, the whole castle shook. On an endtable nearby stood a bottle of expensive wine and a half-full wineglass, ripples still spreading out across the liquid’s surface.
“What do you mean, what am I doing?”
“You can’t just play with – that thing’s incredibly dangerous! It could break the castle in half!” Michelle made a wild grab for the Shatter Stone. Marigold kept it out of her reach by the simple expedient of holding the tiny red jewel up in the air with one hand and firmly restraining Michelle’s forehead with the other.
“You’re awfully frisky today, assistant. What’s your problem?”
“I –” Michelle hesitated. Why was she feeling so out of sorts, anyway? “I, uh. I’m sorry,” she fumbled. “I guess… I was just was talking to that orc sergeant and he was saying the usual stuff about getting paid and, um, yeah.”
Marigold let go of her and frowned. “Assistant, when you were in that submarine –”
“They didn’t, Marigold.”
“I’m just asking. Are you sure those heroes didn’t say anything about –”
“Seriously, you’ve asked me a dozen times. They didn’t.”
“Are you sure,” insisted Marigold, “they didn’t say what I was supposed to do with all this stuff after I got it?”
Michelle sighed. “You can’t steal every part of this plan, you know. You have to contribute something.”
“I don’t see why,” Marigold said sulkily. “What’s the point in being a villain if you have to follow all these rules?” She made to toss the Shatter Stone into the air again, but desisted at a pleading look from Michelle. “I mean, all this stuff is great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a little… miscellaneous.” She looked thoughtful. “I do like the griffins, though. I should get a sleigh or something for them to pull me around in. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“You can already just fly, though?” said Michelle.
“Oh, sure, but this way I could really make an entrance. I’d call it the… hmm. Is there another word for ‘sleigh’? Something more sinister. Who ever heard of an evil sleigh, am I right?”
The entire tower suddenly rocked sharply to one side, knocking Michelle off her feet. Books spilled off bookcases and the wine bottle slid off Marigold’s endtable and shattered, followed by the table itself toppling over.
A long, distant rumble from high above faded into silence as Michelle picked herself up. “What was that?”
“It wasn’t me!” insisted Marigold. “I think something hit us. Come on, let’s take a look.”
The two of them hurried to the windows. Marigold threw open the shutters and peered upwards.
“Well. You don’t see that every day.”
Michelle stared up after her, dumbfounded. “How did – how is that possible?”
There was no way to avoid it. She was looking at the vast metal keel of the submarine Aquila, jammed into the top of the tower ten stories above them. Curlicues of smoke were drifting away from the impact site into the morning sky. Bits of blackrock masonry from the damaged tower top were still breaking loose and trickling past into the castle’s outer bailey far below.
“The Aquila is a flying submarine,” explained Marigold. “Don’t you remember? I’m pretty sure I mentioned that.”
“Why would someone even make a flying submarine!” Michelle cried.
“Never mind that. Get back in here before they see us.” The sorceress grabbed Michelle by the collar and pulled her firmly back into the room. “The heroes have clearly decided on a frontal assault. I bet they’re on their way down here as we speak.” She bit her thumb. “This is bad. This is very bad.”
“You’re…” Michelle couldn’t hide her surprise. “You’re worried about them?”
“Of course! I’m not ready! I can’t have a final confrontation with the heroes in my sitting room! I’d never hear the end of it. The throne room, that’s where this has to be. We’ve got to delay them somehow.” Marigold looked back and forth uncertainly, then nodded firmly to herself. “Yes. All right. When they show up, I’m going to distract them and give us a chance to get away. You run to the orcs. Tell them…”
“To set up a defensive line?” asked Michelle. She’d heard the phrase somewhere once and wanted to try it out.
“No. Tell the orcs to make sure the heroes get to the throne room. They should put up some resistance, just enough to make it look good, but let them through.”
“Right. I probably should have guessed.”
“Then go get that sword of yours, meet me in the throne room, and we’re going to have a confrontation to end all confrontations with those idiots. This is… yes. This is going to be excellent!” Marigold pumped her fist.
There was a violent pounding on the chamber’s double doors.
“Here they come,” said Marigold. “Follow my lead.”
“And do what?”
With a mighty crash, the doors flew open.
As Kerrigan and Ray stormed in through the ruined doorway with Mika, Vail, Eiko, and Kappa right behind them, Marigold flung the Shatter Stone as hard as she could towards the group of adventurers. It hit the stone floor with a spark right between a surprised Ray’s feet and ricocheted like a bullet in a completely unexpected direction, streaking out the open window and vanishing into the clear blue sky.
At the moment the Shatter Stone struck the floor, Michelle heard a scream.
Not a human scream, but a deafening, unforgettable screech of overstressed stone and metal as the entire castle lurched and spun like a top. Chandeliers broke loose and crashed to the floor. The furniture in the room, already disarranged from the Aquila’s impact, now rocketed by her in the opposite direction to smash itself to fragments against the walls. Glass shattered everywhere, mountains wheeled past the window, and she briefly saw the broken end of one of the enormous blackrock chains that were supposed to hold the Ancient Flying Castle to the earth float lazily by, snapping hundred-foot-tall evergreens in half like so many matchsticks.
“What did you do??” Michelle screamed, but there was no answer. She looked around in surprise at the sudden change in her surroundings. Marigold had teleported them both away and she was alone in a corridor.
The castle was still shaking itself to pieces around her. Michelle cursed and ran.
* * * *
The Ancient Flying Castle had loomed over the small town of Tesla since time immemorial -- or so, as noted repeatedly earlier, it was said. A rock of impossible permanence cradled in the foothills and mountains that rose up east of town and, in a way, the town’s biggest tourist attraction, although of limited value as most tourists didn’t want to get close to its brooding form. Witnesses on that morning reported hearing a distant scream and then what sounded like an avalanche that went on and on. When they looked to the east, they saw the castle floating free across the mountainsides and occasionally bouncing off an outcropping, the chains which had once held it down devastating acres of forest as they carved miles-long trenches through the ground behind it. A few witnesses claimed that a ship which had sailed out of the harbor earlier that morning had collided with the castle, although little credence was given to such an obviously unlikely turn of events.
Rumors that the castle was heading towards Tesla itself caused a brief panic, but things settled down when it became clear that the massive floating island was instead drifting up and away from populated areas, towards the unsettled wilderness to the west and the open sea beyond. Townspeople gathered in the hundreds to watch it dwindle to a speck on the horizon and disappear. They would bore their children with stories about the day for years to come.
There were some expressions of regret from local history buffs and Tesla’s Chamber of Commerce at the loss of a local icon, but in the end, most residents agreed that the disappearance of the castle – not to mention the bizarre and mercurial sorceress who lived in it -- was probably for the best. Arguments over whether or not to rename Ancient Flying Castle Way, though, dragged on in the city council for months.
* * * *
Michelle pushed the heavy wooden door open carefully and squinted at the walkway, the morning sunlight briefly dazzling her eyes. Seeing no one, she stepped outside. The orcs were alerted and had charged towards battle with gusto, Xanadu was safely secured at her hip, and now she just had to get to the throne room for Marigold’s “final confrontation.” She wasn’t looking forward to it, but somehow there just weren’t a lot of other options on hand.
The walkway, running along the very top of the great hall connecting the east wing to the central keep where the throne room was located, was narrow, damp, and windy. Beyond the walls, mountains, trees, and a few fleecy clouds spun slowly past as the Ancient Flying Castle drifted uncontrolled through the low mountains east of Tesla. A continuous rolling crash from beneath testified to the immense damage the blackrock chains were wreaking on the forest far below as they bounced and dragged behind the castle. Every so often one of them would snag on something a little more solid than a five-hundred-year-old redwood tree, and the castle would lurch sickeningly to one side before resuming its forward motion in a slightly different direction.
Okay, Michelle. One step at a time. No sense in getting killed by falling off the castle when you’re so close to the opportunity to get killed by the heroes instead.
She took a deep breath and started inching her way out across the roof, clinging tightly to the cold, slick metal railings. She had gotten halfway across and just started to think she’d make it safely to the other side when the doors to the keep in front of her opened and Vail the swordsman stepped out.
Vail said nothing. He drew his two curved swords from their scabbards as he stepped forward.
“Any chance,” Michelle shouted, “that we could just table this fight for now and see how everyone else does first?”
Vail looked at her.
She took a deep breath and drew Xanadu, holding it at the ready in front of her.
“All right. You asked for it!”
Any suggestions? she asked the sword.
Be careful, Xanadu responded. More so than last time. Unlike Ray he’s actually good at this.
Ugh. Why couldn’t all of them be fakers?
The exchange tickled something in the back of her mind. Something that had been gnawing at her more and more since her infiltration mission on the Aquila. Something…
Vail was running towards her, blades held high. She twisted her sword around just in time to block one stroke, then another. Vail was a blizzard of steel, sweeping the left blade in, then the right, then the left, as she desperately parried the blows.
There was a particularly loud crack from far below and the castle abruptly tilted and shifted to one side. For once their unpredictable motion was beneficial, as the random sideways lurch threw Vail off his rhythm for just a moment. Michelle tried to take advantage with an attack of her own, but she was off balance as well and her belated strike hit a wall of metal. Not even close.
You can’t win playing on defense, Xanadu urged her as the swordsman resumed the assault and she blocked another flurry of strikes.
I’m trying, but he’s just too tough! How does he get to have two swords? That’s totally unfair.
No one ever said things would be fair, the sword replied.
Right. I should be used to that by now. Michelle backed up, waiting for a chance, one eye on the wheeling scenery beyond the castle walls. If she could anticipate when the castle would change direction again, then just maybe…
The continuous note of roaring and crunching from far below changed just a bit and their rotation slowed.
She drew back her blade –
“I’LL SAVE YOU, VAIL!” shouted a horribly familiar voice from behind her. A little girl’s voice.
Something smashed into the back of Michelle’s head and she cartwheeled over the railing, losing her grip on the sword as she went over. She slid down the steeply curved roof, scrabbling wildly at the damp, slick obsidian tiles and failing to find purchase. She screamed as the edge of the roof rushed up and she tumbled off, nothing under her but a five-hundred-foot drop over the side of the floating island and into the rocks far below --
From above a hand gripped her outstretched arm with titanic strength, jarring her to a stop and nearly pulling the limb out of its socket. She thrashed in panic for a moment, but the other hand didn’t move. She looked up, into Vail’s face.
“Give me your other hand,” Vail ordered. “Unless you’d prefer the fall?”
“You – you can talk?” she managed, as she extended her other arm upwards. Vail seized it and almost effortlessly launched her up onto the edge of the roof next to him, where she clung desperately to the parapet, gasping like a freshly caught fish.
“Of course I can talk,” he snapped. Vail’s voice was high-pitched and a little bit nasal. “Unlike most people, I just don’t go around constantly nattering when I don’t have anything to say.”
“Right, of course. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, but… why did you save me?”
“It strikes me,” Vail said, “that your heart isn’t entirely in this, ‘Michelle the Whirlwind.’”
“Oh. Heh. You noticed that, did you?”
Eiko’s face peered over the railing above them.
“Vail?” she said, confused. “Why are you…”
Michelle stared. “You!” she shouted, filled with sudden anger. “Stop hitting me!”
The little girl’s eyes widened. “B-but I’m supposed to hit you. You’re the villain.”
Michelle ruthlessly tamped down the thought that this kind of “logic” would be awfully familiar to anyone who spent much time around Marigold. “Well, I don’t appreciate it!” she yelled back instead. “It really hurts!”
Eiko looked like she was about to burst into tears.
“Ah! Look, I’m sorry, don’t cry, I…” Michelle turned away from the bridge, holding her head in her hands. “Oh God. Why do you jerks have an eight-year-old girl with you, anyway?”
“She’s a more effective fighter than some people I could name,” Vail replied with asperity. “Have you forgotten that she’s beaten you twice now?”
“I haven’t forgotten anything –”
And a jumble of pieces in her head finally fell into place.
“He’s a fake,” she said suddenly, involuntarily.
“What? Who’s a fake?”
Michelle looked at him. “I overheard Ray Vincent telling you people that he remembered Marigold giving him amnesia.”
“Remembered. Amnesia. Do you get it?”
Vail looked blank.
“How can you remember getting amnesia?” Michelle said patiently.
“Well…” he began, then stopped uncertainly. “I’m… sure there’s some reasonable explanation.”
“Yes. Like that Ray Vincent is a big dumb faker!”
“You can’t back that up,” Vail said, a bit desperately.
“But you know I’m right, don’t you? Yeah, you can’t unthink it now,” Michelle said triumphantly. “I don’t know why he’s doing it, but that whole story with Marigold is total crap. Deep down I knew right from the beginning. Marigold told me she’s never been to Archimedea, and I believe her. I bet she can’t even spell it.”
Vail looked stunned.
“While you’re pondering that one, let’s get off this ledge before the castle tips over again,” Michelle suggested.
Vail just nodded. He didn’t say anything more until they had finally made it over the railing to the relative safety of the narrow walkway running along the crown of the roof.
“Okay,” the swordsman said at last. “If you’re right about all this. Then what does it mean?”
“Well, we’re fighting for no reason, for starters. And even if it’s over a fake story, your friends are still in danger for sure, including Ray. Marigold might be a huge flake but sorceress-wise she’s the real deal. There’s no way those goobers could stand up against her. I mean, I don’t really care what happens to them but maybe you do.”
“Perhaps they’re not as weak as you think,” said Vail, annoyed. “Kerrigan managed to scare up an anti-magic shell for that rifle of his. I bet they could take her down. But maybe you wouldn’t mind so much if that happened?”
Michelle paused and thought about it.
“I would,” she said, surprising herself. “I mean, you know. Just a little.”
She sighed, exhausted. The back of her head still radiated agony. All of her muscles ached. Her clothes were hopelessly sodden and filthy from the slide down the roof tiles. She just wanted to lie down.
She felt a tug at the hem of her matted robes and turned around to see Eiko.
Wordlessly, the little girl handed her the sword Xanadu, which had landed on the walkway when she went over the railing.
“Thanks,” Michelle said in surprise. Eiko nodded shyly and stepped back, hiding herself behind Kappa’s broad metal body.
I was worried about you, Xanadu told her. What’s the plan? Time to wipe out the heroes?
Not quite, she thought back. Then, aloud, “Come on, guys. Let’s go stop this fight before it gets any stupider.”
* * * *
The walkway led the four of them into the eaves atop the main level of the keep. The noise from below of old-growth forest being smashed to flinders had slowly dropped off as the Ancient Flying Castle gained altitude, and now only an occasional soft bang filtered through as one of the blackrock chains bounced off a snowy mountaintop. It seemed like the castle would survive its takeoff after all, or at least survive it far better than the thoroughly ruined landscape it had left behind.
“What are we going to do when we get to the throne room?” Vail asked.
Since when am I in charge? “Not sure,” Michelle answered. “Hopefully your friends haven’t made it past the orcs yet. If Marigold’s there I can tell her…”
She hesitated. Tell her what? Marigold didn’t care why the heroes were here.
“…Something,” she finished lamely. “We’ll get it sorted out.”
“You’re filling me with confidence,” Vail said, sniffing.
They continued on their hurried path through what seemed like an endless series of ancient attics. Whatever the contents of these rooms had once been, over the years (centuries? millennia?) most of them had moldered into damp, unidentifiable black piles heaped up against the walls. The air was clammy and filled with wet, coal-black dust stirred up by the castle’s recent gyrations. Michelle was trying not to think of what horrible things they might be breathing in with it.
Finally, they came upon a large wooden hatchway set into the floor.
“This should lead down to the galleries above the throne room,” Michelle said. She listened at it for a moment.
“Well?” asked Vail.
“I can’t hear anything. This door’s too thick. Help me get it op –”
The room shook. Michelle ducked back just in time as the heavy wooden hatch flew open and hot air and light roared into the room. She peered over the lip of the hatch.
“Well. Your friends are here.”
* * * *
“Kerrigan! Is that shell ready?” Mika Lawrence was sweating profusely as she held the hammer in front of her, desperately attempting to keep its magical shield in place. Apparently uninterested in any kind of subtle tactics, or possibly unaware of the concept to start with, Marigold had simply assaulted them with an immense barrage of destructive magical energy the moment they had charged into her throne room, and then just kept on firing it. The sorceress floated in the air above the spiked, clawed black throne of the Ancient Flying Castle, surrounded by an eye-twisting halo of deep magic, laughing gleefully as she poured on her apparently limitless power.
“Could she at least not be so happy about this?” Ray muttered, holding his sword at the ready.
“I’m trying!” The big man was wrestling with his rifle. “The loader got banged up in the fight with the orcs.” He pounded at the mechanism fruitlessly.
“I can’t hold this up much longer!” Mika shouted. The runes on the hammer were glowing white-hot. The magical shield abruptly contracted one foot, then another as the magical barrage coruscated around the room.
“Almost got it –”
The shield contracted five feet and cracked visibly, inches in front of Mika’s face.
“There!” With one swift move Kerrigan drew the rifle to his shoulder and fired.
The anti-magic shell sailed past Marigold’s head and embedded itself in the friable, decayed tapestries that lined the rear of the immense chamber.
“Ha!” sneered the sorceress. “You missed --”
The shell detonated in a wild sphere of multicolored lights, and Marigold dropped out of the air like a puppet with its strings cut. She barely missed the razor-sharp spikes on the obsidian throne in the center of the chamber and instead tumbled down the long, black-carpeted staircase in front of it, finally rolling to a stop right in front of Ray.
He stared down at the unconscious sorceress in front of him.
“Now, Ray!” Mika shouted. “Finish her off!”
Ray raised his sword and hesitated. “I, uh…”
“Do it! Do it now, before she recovers! Remember what she did to you! This is your chance at revenge!”
His arms trembled.
That was when an enormous fist hit him from the left. Ray went down heavily and his sword clattered away into the darkness.
“W-what? What happened?” Mika stammered. “Who…”
Her eyes widened as Vail, Eiko, Kappa, and Michelle emerged from the bottom of one of the gallery staircases. The mechanical fist that had knocked Ray down retracted swiftly and snapped back into place at the end of Kappa’s right arm with a neat little click.
“Traitor!” Mika snarled. “What are you –”
“Mika,” said Kerrigan quietly, “Hold on a second.”
Mika backed off, still fuming. “There’d better be a good explanation for this.”
“What’s going on, Vail?” said Kerrigan. “Why is the sorceress’s minion with you?” He was looking at Eiko as he said it. The little girl looked back at him, trembling slightly, but defiant.
“I intercepted her on the walkway,” Vail said calmly. “We fought a little. She’s not very good, by the way. Then we compared notes. Then we realized we’d all been misled.”
Ray Vincent groaned in pain, holding his jaw, and pulled himself up to a sitting position. Mika ran to him.
“What do you mean, misled?” said Kerrigan. “By who?”
“Ray has something to tell us. Don’t you, Ray?”
Ray looked at them, haunted.
“Ray, what’s going on?” asked Mika, her voice shaking a bit.
“Oh, it’s not much of a secret!” began Michelle angrily. “But he’s too much of a coward to be honest with you, no matter how many people get hurt –”
“I lied,” Ray said suddenly.
Michelle had built up a good head of righteous indignation and her brain tripped over itself as she tried to bring it to an emergency stop.
Ray stood up.
“The whole thing. Amnesia, Marigold attacking me, all of it. I made it up. That sorceress,” he pointed to where Marigold was still lying crumpled and unconscious on the floor. “is...”
He seemed tongue-tied for a moment. The word “innocent” was clearly inappropriate in any context that had Marigold in it.
“…I’ve never seen her before in my life. I needed someone who was a plausible antagonist, and I saw an article in a newspaper about her and this castle, and so, yeah. That’s all.”
“Why…” Mika was staring. “Why would you do this, Ray?”
“I just wanted to feel important.” Ray Vincent hung his head. “I never amounted to anything in my life, and I knew I never would. Then I got hit by a cart outside Archimedea. And you found me and nursed me back to health, Mika. It was, well, an impulse. I made up a cool story to make myself sound good in front of you. And then it just, well, got away from me. I had to keep making up bigger and bigger stories and next thing you know, we were recruiting people and stealing ships and attacking castles…”
He looked down at Marigold again.
“That’s why I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill someone in cold blood for a lie.”
Ray turned to Mika.
“Mika, I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive –”
She slapped him, hard, and stalked away. Ray wobbled on his feet and collapsed to the ground again.
“I deserved that, but could you have not slapped me on the same side of my face where Kappa punched me?” he said piteously.
Kerrigan had been watching this whole exchange with an increasingly disgusted look on his face. Finally, he spoke up.
“Eiko,” he said, “let’s go.”
The little girl ran over to Kerrigan, who reached down with one enormous arm and swept her onto his shoulder in a single move.
“Where are we going?” Eiko asked.
“We are going,” said Kerrigan, “to go apologize very sincerely to your mother for leaving, and hope and pray she takes us back.”
Kerrigan walked out through the main doors of the throne room, Kappa trundling obediently after them. Just as they stepped through, Eiko looked back at Michelle and gave her a little wave. Surprised, Michelle waved back, and then they were gone.
Vail walked up to her.
“Your swordfighting technique is amateurish, ‘Michelle the Whirlwind,’” he said in his nasal voice. “You aren’t aggressive enough, and you telegraph every move you make.”
“Gee, thanks,” said Michelle, annoyed.
“Don’t mention it. I hope the advice is useful.” Vail gave her a friendly half-wave as well and followed the others out of the throne room.
Marigold groaned, and Michelle ran over to her.
“Assistant…?” Marigold said blearily as the she attempted to sit up.
“Are you all right, Marigold?”
The sorceress hesitated, then raised a hand and snapped her fingers once, then again. On the third try, a little flame ignited between her thumb and forefinger. Satisfied, she closed her fist and crushed it.
“My magic was gone,” she said. “Is that what it’s like for you all the time?”
“I guess so,” Michelle said.
“My goodness. That must be terrible, I’m glad I’m not you. Help me up, I’m still feeling a bit woozy.”
Putting an arm around her shoulder, Michelle got the sorceress into a sitting position with her elbows behind her.
“Where did the heroes go?” asked Marigold.
Marigold frowned for a while, processing this.
“Did I beat them?”
Michelle was about to speak, then hesitated. “…In a manner of speaking?” she answered, finally.
“YES!” shouted Marigold suddenly, pumping her fist and making Michelle jump. “I am the best evil mastermind! I won without even being conscious! Ha! Imagine what I could have done to them if I hadn’t been knocked out! Wait…” She looked over at the figure of Ray Vincent, who was sitting on the floor, one hand to the side of his face. “What’s he still doing here?”
“It’s complicated,” Michelle began. “You see –”
“Oh, is it? Well, never mind then.” Marigold looked around. “Get me to the balcony. I want to see what’s going on out there.”
“All right.” It took a bit of doing since the sorceress was a lot taller than she was, but Michelle managed to get her on her feet, one arm around her waist as she leaned heavily on the shorter girl. They departed the throne room, leaving Ray Vincent alone in the vast, empty chamber.
* * * *
“There they go,” Michelle said. The two of them watched from the inner balcony of the central keep as the Aquila dislodged itself from the tower it had rammed earlier, did a laborious two-point turn, accelerated away from the castle and vanished into the distance.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” commented Marigold.
The Ancient Flying Castle was now at least a couple of thousand feet in the air. The sky was a brilliantly untroubled blue and vast, fluffy white clouds drifted silently by. Here in the lee of the enormous black keep, the air was calm and cool and the sunshine was bright and warm on Michelle’s skin. The atmosphere of peace and tranquility was only slightly spoiled when the top of the damaged tower caved in on itself and collapsed into the outer bailey in a fountain of stone and dust.
Michelle sighed. “Between the orcs, the heroes, and that trick you played with the Shatter Stone, this place is trashed.”
“Well then, you can keep yourself busy cleaning it up,” said Marigold. “Idle hands are the devil’s plaything, assistant.”
“Shouldn’t you be in favor of that, being an evil sorceress and all?” said Michelle sourly.
“Not for you.”
The sorceress paused.
“Assistant, have you ever wondered why sorcerers and sorceresses don’t rule the world?”
Michelle looked at her in surprise. There was an unaccountably serious look on Marigold’s face.
“After all, we’re much more powerful than anyone else. Even entire armies couldn’t stop us. So why aren’t we in charge?”
“I… I don’t know. Why?”
“Because when you can do anything, you don’t need to do anything.” Marigold leaned on the balcony. “When I first arrived in Tesla I tried to just take everything I wanted. Well, not tried, I just did. But I eventually stopped, because what was the point? Money means nothing to me. Possessions mean nothing to me. I can have anything I want at the snap of a finger, so why bother to make an effort to take it from someone else? And that’s why sorcerers and sorceresses don’t rule the world.”
“It doesn’t sound like such a bad life,” said Michelle.
“No, it is that bad. It’s the worst. It destroys you from the inside out, worse than any disease. Eventually the desperation for purpose kills you. That’s why I set myself the goal of taking over the world, unlike all those other slackers rotting away in their pleasure palaces. Because without a purpose in life, you might as well just lay down and die. Keep that lesson in mind, assistant.”
“And I suppose my purpose in life is to help you with your purpose, is it?”
“Until you find your own,” said Marigold.
“Now run along and get to work.”
She stepped back from the balcony and hesitated.
“…Because the world waits for no one, right?”
Michelle nodded and fled the balcony, leaving the sorceress to watch the clouds go by.
The Ancient Flying Castle had been adrift over the sea for some weeks now. Food and water weren’t a problem for its inhabitants thanks to Marigold’s sorcerous abilities (when she could be bothered to use them, that is) but the castle itself had been badly beaten up during its unexpected takeoff from the mountains outside Tesla. Not as badly beaten up as the mountains had been, of course, but there were still immense piles of rubble to deal with, and that on top of the wreckage from the fight with the heroes and the general disorder and decay that had accumulated in the castle over its uncountable years of existence. Marigold’s vague directive to “clean this place up” had at first sent Michelle running back to her tiny cell to hide, but it turned out that the Kur-Ul-Llath Orc Army’s mercenary contract did include “maintaining military fortifications” and they had dived into the job with gusto.
Michelle watched now as a line of immense, muscular, battle-scarred orcs hoisted gigantic blocks of blackrock masonry over their shoulders from a collapsed tower, carried them out through a gap in the wall to the edge of the floating island, and unceremoniously dumped them over the side into the sea. These guys were useful to have around, she had to admit. The heaps of rubble were shrinking almost as she watched.
In and amongst the rows of orcs was a much shorter figure pushing a wheelbarrow. Michelle frowned, and her hand unconsciously tapped the hilt of the magical sword Xanadu slung at her side.
You really should let this go, Michelle, advised Xanadu.
“No,” she said aloud, “I don’t think I will.” She climbed down off the low wall she had been sitting on and marched towards the worksite.
“So, Ray Vincent,” Michelle said as she approached the figure. “Are you enjoying your new job?”
Ray looked up at her from the wheelbarrow full of rubble he was pushing towards the edge of the cliff. He was stripped to the waist and his wiry physique was covered in sweat and grime, his once proudly-styled blond hair now slicked down and dirty. “It’s fine,” he said, “though it’s also pointless. I can move about one-tenth as much as everyone else.”
“Too bad. You’re going to earn your keep around here. Are the orcs treating you well?”
“Yeah,” he said. “These guys are actually really professional.”
“Oh,” Michelle said, disappointed. “Well, don’t worry. I’ll find something else horrible and unpleasant for you to do after this.”
Ray dropped the wheelbarrow angrily. “Look, I said I was sorry for attacking you. That crazy sorceress has forgiven me. Why can’t you?”
“First of all, that’s your boss’s boss you’re talking about, so have some respect. Second of all Marigold hasn’t forgiven you, because she doesn’t think there’s anything to forgive. As far as she’s concerned she won a huge victory. Third of all, I’m not forgiving you, because… because…” Michelle waved her hands a bit helplessly. “…Because you’re a huge jerk and I hate you,” she finished, lamely. “So get back to work!”
“Give some people a little power and it goes straight to their heads,” Ray muttered. He lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow and stared pushing it again as Michelle retreated, embarrassed.
“Hey, Michelle,” he called out a moment later.
“What?!” she snapped, turning around.
“Come look at this.”
She sighed and walked over to the edge of the cliff where Ray was peering over it into the ocean far below.
“There’s a ship down there,” he said.
Michelle frowned. “There’s two ships down there,” she said.
Then she looked around some more. There were a lot of ships down there.
She clapped her hands together. “Hello! Orcs! Everyone!” The orc soldiers turned to look at her. “Take five, okay? Stop dumping stuff in the water. I’ve got to go tell Marigold about this.”
She started jogging towards a nearby staircase that led up the battlements of the great castle, then realized that Ray was following her.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m coming with you. Sounds like something’s happening.”
“Get back to work.”
“You just said to stop working.”
Michelle growled helplessly, then turned away, resolutely ignoring him, and hurried up the stairs. He could follow or not. She didn’t care.
* * * *
“Marigold, we might have a problem,” Michelle said as she emerged onto the battlement at the rear of the castle, followed by Ray.
Marigold didn’t bother to look up from the deck chair where she was taking in the sun. The self-proclaimed evil sorceress and future ruler of the world was wearing an enormous straw hat, sunglasses, and a dark green one-piece swimsuit that was far more conservative than her usual attire. Next to her on a small table was a tall glass with a colorful drink in it and – yes, of course there would be – a tiny umbrella.
“Well, solve the problem, assistant,” Marigold said dismissively. “I’m very busy.”
“We’ve got company,” Ray Vincent said.
Marigold glanced over at him. “Are you still here?”
“Where else would I possibly be?” he said with asperity.
“I don’t know,” sniffed Marigold. “I’m not the one who’s still here.”
Ray thought about this for a moment. “Yes, you are,” he said at last.
“Look, never mind that!” Michelle said, exasperated. “Company. Boats. There’s like a million of them down there following us.”
“Oh, honestly, assistant. Must you make such a production out of everything?” But Marigold did sit up and get out of her deck chair. “Let’s take a look.”
The three of them hurried over to the edge of the battlements and peered down.
“That is a lot of boats,” Marigold said at length.
They could see at least four military-looking ironclads following the castle. The ships were small, perhaps forty feet long, and made of plated iron with wooden deckhouses and oversized paddlewheels beating furiously at the water. Red and white pennants snapped in the breeze behind the ships, some of which were flashing lights at the castle. As they watched, another ironclad joined the formation.
“Crap,” Ray muttered.
Michelle glanced back at him. “What?”
“Those ships are from Archimedea. My hometown. Pretty sure I’m still a wanted man back there for stealing that submarine.”
“I’m surprised that anyone wants you,” Michelle said caustically. Ray sighed.
“Cease your adorable bickering,” Marigold snapped. “Assistant, isn’t there somebody waving at us from that one?”
She pointed. Indeed, there was a man in an officer’s uniform standing on the forward deck of the closest ship. He had clearly caught sight of the faces peering over the crenellations of the castle and was gesticulating wildly at them. His ship turned its spotlight directly towards the three of them and started flashing it again.
“Yeah. I don’t suppose you know what that light means?” Michelle asked.
“Haven’t a clue.” Marigold leaned out over the battlements and cupped her hands around her mouth. “We have no idea what you’re trying to tell us!” she shouted happily.
The man on the deck stamped his foot angrily. He yelled something in return, but he was much too far away for his voice to carry back to the castle.
The ironclads started ringing bells and blowing airhorns.
“What a racket,” commented Marigold. “Don’t they have anything better to do than stalk us? I mean, it’s understandable considering my beauty” – she made sure that she was striking an alluring pose for the theoretical enraptured observers on board the military ships – “but still.”
The lead ship suddenly veered sharply to one side, nearly throwing the man in the officer’s uniform into the sea. A giant three-masted schooner swept by underneath the castle, the tip of its mainmast seemingly close enough to touch. The other ships in the formation abruptly scattered as well, sounding their air horns frantically. More bells became audible in the distance.
“That thing was awfully close,” Michelle said uneasily.
“Did you notice that it has its sails tied up?” said Ray. “I’m pretty sure it’s at anchor.”
“Why would it be at anchor in the middle of the ocean?”
The two of them looked at each other for a moment.
Marigold glanced back and forth at their worried faces. “What?” she said.
There was a deafening roar from below as the bottom of the floating island touched the water.
“We’re going down!” Michelle shouted as a vast plume of seawater rose above the battlements. “And in shallow water! We must be in a harbor! We’re going to hit –”
The roar of water turned into a continuous shattering noise. Torrents of wooden debris, entire shingled roofs, longboats of varying designs, carts and crates by the hundreds, and several surprised-looking cows sailed up past the battlements before dropping out of sight again. Their forward motion showed no sign of stopping.
“—We must have already hit the docks,” Michelle corrected, “and that means we’re about to –”
A tremendous bang echoed from up front as the castle struck solid land. Plumes of black smoke burst from all over the mighty fortress and one of the three clock towers creaked and tilted ten degrees, its great bell tolling wildly. Michelle and Ray were flung hard to the stone rooftop as the castle finally ground to a halt. The echoes of the castle’s violent landing slowly faded away, leaving behind distant screams and fire alarms.
“—we’ve just reached land,” Michelle finished, from the ground. She slowly, painfully pulled herself to her feet.
“Hmm,” said Marigold. She was holding her glass in one hand. Somehow, it hadn’t spilled a drop. She sniffed it, then tossed it over the battlements. “Well, there you go, assistant. Ignore a problem long enough and it’s likely to solve itself. Let’s go up front and see where we are.”
“Isn’t anyone going to help me up?” said Ray.
“No,” Michelle snapped. She did, however – rather nobly, she thought – resist the urge to kick him.
* * * *
Marigold marched serenely across the castle’s lowered drawbridge and into the devastated metropolis as if she had been practicing for just such a thing for years, Michelle and Ray trailing behind her. The sorceress had traded in the swimsuit for her more usual, and substantially skimpier, black leather attire and Michelle had her heavy brown assistant’s robes on with Xanadu slung securely at her hip, in easy reach. Ray was back in his blue bodysuit, although he had quickly combed his hair into his eyes and was trying to keep his face pointed casually away from the group of soldiers awaiting them at the far end of the drawbridge. He had desperately tried to beg off from meeting the locals, but mere logical argument and appeals to common humanity had no effect on Marigold’s invincible wall of disinterest.
Michelle looked around as they stepped off the bridge. The Ancient Flying Castle had smashed a large section of the docks to ruins, but had ground to a halt before making it very far inland. Still, several feet of water had been lifted out of the harbor to flood the nearby streets. The water was receding rapidly, but it had left debris and wreckage everywhere along with the occasional thirty-foot sloop that had been carried onto land and beached on someone’s front doorstep.
Aside from the recent disaster, though, the city was strikingly beautiful. Multiple tiers of tall, whitewashed buildings, some as many as four stories high, rose in terraces up the side of several hills. Flags and red-and-white pennants and bunting were everywhere. Even the cobblestoned streets of this mercantile and industrial district were well-kept and had clearly been bustling with activity before a recent hasty evacuation, with gaily painted carts and stalls toppled in the road.
They came to a halt in front of the armed group and Michelle got her first good look at them. At first blush, the men standing in formation looked like ceremonial guards, wearing flamboyant red and white uniforms with tights, double-breasted jackets, epaulettes, and elaborate shako caps.
Look carefully, Xanadu advised her, beyond the surface. Look at the people in those uniforms.
She looked. Ceremonial or not, the guards were in excellent shape, and the swords, pistols, and lances they carried looked high quality and well-maintained.
The only woman in the group was standing at the front of the guard unit: tall, muscular, and copper-skinned, wearing the same guard outfit but with more elaborate epaulettes. She was holding her hat under her right arm, revealing long red hair that cascaded down her back as well as, most surprisingly, a pair of cat-like ears.
“I am Lady Xiang Bettancourt, Captain of the Guard and representative of King Rudolf II,” the woman said. Her voice was deep and powerful. “Who are you and why have you come to Archimedea?”
“Straight to the point!” said Marigold. “I like it. I am the great sorceress Marigold, and these are my minions, Michelle and Ray.”
“Minion?” Ray whispered to Michelle. “Did I just get promoted?”
“No!” Michelle hissed back. “Shut up.”
Lady Xiang, meanwhile, looked studiously blank. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with your name.”
“Oh really?” said Marigold, surprised. “I’m given to understand that I am extremely famous around here.” She glanced back at Ray. “There was something about a newspaper article, wasn’t there, minion?”
“To be fair, it was in the Style section,” Ray said.
“As is only appropriate,” Marigold preened. “You don’t get future conquerors of the world much more stylish than me.”
Lady Xiang’s blank expression slipped a bit. Michelle felt a wave of sympathy for the other woman; this would have been her first encounter with Marigold’s own personal brand of logic. “What are you here for, Sorceress Marigold?” she asked again, her voice hardening.
“Oh, you know. This and that. Is that King Rudolf’s castle up there?” Marigold pointed behind them, to a white fairytale construction perched on the hill in the center of the metropolis.
“Yes, it is.”
“It’s very nice,” Marigold said. “In fact, I’d say it’s the second most impressive castle in this entire city.”
Lady Xiang’s left eye twitched and her ears flattened to her skull. She stepped forward until her face was inches from Marigold’s. She was taller than the sorceress and, at short range, fairly loomed. “Listen, you ridiculous skank,” she snarled quietly. “You caused hundreds of thousands of crowns in damage when you crashed that stinking heap of rubble into our harbor. If we hadn’t seen you coming miles away and evacuated the area, the death toll would have been unimaginable. The only reason I haven’t already ordered my men to run you through is because the King wants to see if we can find some sort of peaceful resolution.”
“Then it’s fortunate for your men,” Marigold murmured in reply, “that your king is so wise.”
The guard captain looked like she was about to explode.
“Is he handsome as well?” Marigold asked.
“What? Yes, very much so, but –” Lady Xiang stopped short. “I don’t see how that’s relevant!”
“All right, you’ve convinced me. Let’s go and meet your wise, handsome king.”
Lady Xiang stared at her.
“Wasn’t that what you came here to make us do? Well, lead the way!” Marigold said cheerfully.
The other woman looked like she was chewing glass. Without a word, she spun around, clapped her shako cap on her head and started marching away. Marigold, Michelle, and Ray followed her, and the guard troops fell unobtrusively into formation to either side and behind.
“Why were you deliberately antagonizing her?” Michelle whispered to Marigold.
“Well, come on, did you see how she reacted? Those ears? It was the cutest thing. I couldn’t help myself.”
Michelle dropped the matter in disgust and backed off. After a moment, she glanced over at Ray. “What is the story with those ears, anyway?”
“You’ve never seen beast-people before?” Ray answered in surprise. “Well, I guess Te – uh, the old place was kind of out in the sticks. Archimedea is a little more cosmopolitan.”
“There’s more to it than that!” said one of the guards, a tall, cheerful-looking blond-haired man who had apparently been listening in. “Lady Xiang is peerless. She’s the first beast-person ever to become captain of a guard company in the entire League, and – ouch!”
Lady Xiang had stopped short, reached out and struck the guard on the side of his head with a swagger stick without even turning around.
“I am not the first anything to ever anything, Vulkan,” she said frostily. “I am the Captain of the King’s Guard, nothing more and nothing less, and you will remember that at all times.”
“Of course, ma’am,” said the guard, abashed.
Lady Xiang resumed her march, and the party got moving again.
“I like her,” Marigold said. “She’s feisty.”
* * * *
“May I introduce,” a voice bawled from beyond the doors, “the Sorceress Marigold, and her attendants.”
“An attendant now? I’m really moving up in the world!” said Ray, as Lady Xiang escorted them into the throne room. Her guards followed behind and took up station at the rear of the room.
Michelle had to grant that King Rudolf’s palace had a lot to recommend it. The windows admitted sunlight, for example, and the walls didn’t leave a clammy, coal-black residue on one’s hands that never seemed to clean off no matter how hard one washed. The throne room was nearly as large as the one in the Ancient Flying Castle, but clean, luxurious, and well-appointed. Galleries for visitors and dignitaries, empty at the moment, lined the walls beneath dozens of colorful tapestries with noble coats of arms stenciled on them. Atop a dais was a surprisingly humble-looking throne, and seated on the throne was a not at all humble-looking person.
“His Majesty,” concluded the plump, red-faced usher, “King Rudolf II, ruler by grace of God of the city-state of Archimedea and the New Territories, protector of the realm!”
Rudolf II nodded graciously. He looked to be in his forties and was indeed a handsome man, with short, curly brown hair just starting to go gray at the temples and a neatly trimmed goatee. He wore a simple white uniform in a military cut with a golden sash and a single medal on its chest, and reclined casually on the throne. A few attendants stood nearby, as well as a mousy-looking woman in glasses who was perched at a desk and rapidly tapping at a mechanical keyboard.
“Our unexpected guests,” said King Rudolf. “Welcome to Archimedea.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Marigold. “It was an unexpected journey, really. There was a bit of a fight with some heroes, castle went sailing away across the ocean, you know how it goes…”
Amazing what you can skate over using the passive voice, Michelle thought sourly.
“Yes,” said the King. “Why, it could happen to anyone. And then your castle collided with our docks.”
“I prefer to think of it as, you built your docks in the way of my castle.”
The King frowned.
“Jinna,” he said abruptly, “stop typing, please.”
The mousy woman glanced at him, nodded, and lowered her hands from the keyboard. Rudolf leaned forward, suddenly all business.
“Let us skip the tedious verbal fencing and be perfectly frank, Sorceress Marigold. Certain amongst my advisors --” the King glanced at Lady Xiang, who remained studiously expressionless – “have recommended an immediate attack, on the not unreasonable basis that your castle hit our city without a warning beforehand or an apology afterwards, that you are a sorceress of great power and unknown motives, and – oh, yes – all that stuff about conquering the world. On the other hand, we are a small kingdom and an all-out battle would be immensely destructive at a moment when the situation on our borders is already quite fragile. So I’m afraid I must know before any steps are taken that cannot be called back. What are your intentions?”
“As you said, Your Majesty,” Marigold replied. “To conquer the world.”
“Intimidating, yet vague. Let’s be more specific. Does conquering the world start tomorrow? And does it start with conquering our little kingdom?”
The throne room was silent for a moment. Michelle found herself holding her breath. Then Marigold broke out into a brilliant smile.
“I believe I do catch your drift, Your Majesty,” she said. “I will promise to, as the saying goes, eat you last.”
“Interestingly put,” said the King. Lady Xiang’s expression briefly turned poisonous.
“And as a token of friendship, may I state that I am currently in possession of a trained and efficient workforce that would be more than willing to assist in the rebuilding of your docks? As long as you can convince them that the docks are military fortifications, that is.”
“Marigold!” Michelle hissed. “We need the orcs to fix the castle!”
“I’m sure you can handle the rest of the job on your own, assistant,” Marigold said. Michelle slumped.
At this, though, King Rudolf smiled as well. “Sorceress Marigold, I believe this is the start of a beautiful friendship. Or, at the very least, a beautiful tense diplomatic standoff.” He waved a hand towards the mousy woman sitting nearby and leaned back in the throne, again the picture of unruffled, casual authority. “Jinna, you may start recording again. The sorceress and the realm have come to an arrangement. We shall not attempt to murder each other, for now. How does that sound?”
“It sounds delicious, Your Majesty,” the sorceress said, offering the King an extravagant bow.
* * * *
A little later, the throne room was empty except for two people.
“I must protest, Your Majesty,” Lady Xiang said. “We can’t allow that sorceress to run wild around our city!”
“I understand your reasoning, Lady Xiang. Believe me, I do. But do you really think that our army is an any condition to defeat her? Especially given the situation in the New Territories?”
“We’re ready to fight and die for you,” she insisted. “Every one of us. Say the word, Your Majesty!”
The King seemed genuinely taken aback. “And what good would you be to me dead, Lady? I would so miss our little chats.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Let us say, instead, that we need more information about this sorceress and that castle of hers. I would like you to take charge of this effort, Lady Xiang.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” she said, bowing. “I shall start at once.”
* * * *
“What happened in there, Marigold?”
Marigold raised an eyebrow at Michelle. The two of them were in Marigold’s new sitting room in the Ancient Flying Castle, the old one having been thoroughly destroyed when a submarine crashed into it. “What happened in there? You were there, assistant. You saw it.”
“No, I mean –” Michelle waved her hands helplessly. “I thought you were going to conquer the world. Now you’re signing peace treaties and making nice with everyone?”
“So bloodthirsty,” Marigold said. She raised a finger to go with the eyebrow. “World conquest isn’t all death and destruction, assistant. Consider this. This morning, we were vagabonds. Nobodies. Floating aimlessly, with no allies and no hope.”
“You didn’t seem bothered by it at the time…”
“But this afternoon,” the sorceress continued relentlessly, “we are allied with a powerful kingdom, have influential friends in high places, and are demonstrating our military strength to the population. I expect uninterrupted success from this point on.” She smiled. “Luck is with us, after all. For example, isn’t it fortunate that we arrived just in time to assist the Kingdom of Archimedea in recovering from such a terrible calamity?”
“A calamity that you caused!” Michelle spluttered.
Marigold looked at her calmly.
“Oh, I am not going to believe that you planned all this, Marigold,” Michelle said.
“Believe what you like, assistant,” Marigold said primly. “Now if you are done ranting at me, don’t you have a castle to clean?”
Michelle stormed out of the room without another word.
* * * *
Ray Vincent looked up from his mop as the door to the scullery flew open and Michelle stomped in. She made a beeline to one of the few intact shelves and seized a sweetmeat from it.
“What happened?” he said.
“I am really sick and tired of her nonsense,” Michelle said angrily. She puffed out her chest and made a ridiculous face. “Oh, look at me! I’m Marigold the Sorceress, I’m so mysterious and sexy and better than everyone! I don’t have to take anything seriously or even know what I’m doing, I just take credit for everything everyone else does and it works out for me anyway!”
She deflated, abruptly. “After the last couple of weeks… I was almost starting to not hate her.”
“You really wear your heart on your sleeve, don’t you, Michelle?” Ray said.
Michelle stared incredulously at him for a moment.
“Get back to work,” she snarled, and slammed the door as she left.
Why isn’t there ever an orc around when you need one?
The Kur-Ul-Llath Orc Army was thin on the ground in the Ancient Flying Castle these days, ever since Marigold had so selflessly loaned their services to their new “allies” in Archimedea, and against all expectations it was the absence of orcs that was causing Michelle problems. Bad enough that the castle was full of fallen rubble that she couldn’t imagine moving without them, but to have to handle the current situation by herself as well…
Michelle had been searching high and low for an orc, any orc, all morning. Now she peered into a vast space in the central keep that might have once been a ballroom: it was a hundred feet long and at least forty feet high, with tall, narrow windows stretching all the way to the forest of wooden beams in the vaulted ceiling. But the windows were caked with millennia of dirt and filth, letting in a feeble trickle of white light that only made the rest of the space darker by comparison, and the air was cold and moist. What little of the hall’s contents she could make out was a sea of stinking, moldering furniture, most of it in such a state of advanced decay that it was impossible to tell what it had once been.
Far off in the opposite corner of the hall, though, was movement. A bent-over, irregularly shaped, barely-visible figure was apparently employed in clearing the ruined furniture away from a space in the floor and piling it up near the walls.
“Hey! Over here!” she called out, and hurried towards the figure. Only too late did she realize her horrible mistake.
“You need something?” said Ray Vincent as Michelle skidded to a stop. Ray was wearing his usual physique-hugging blue bodysuit and carrying an enormous chair, or at least the remains of one, on his back towards the edge of the room. So far, he had cleared about a twenty-by-twenty-foot section of the immense hall.
“Ah…” Michelle stammered. “Ray. Have, er… have you seen any of the orcs around?”
“Nope, not since yesterday.”
If I say anything else I’ll regret it forever. I’d better go. Yes, time to leave right now.
“Um…” she began. God damn it.
“…No, never mind.” She hesitated once more, turning irresolutely towards the door and then back again.
“Why are you looking for an orc?” Ray asked.
“I… I need…” she belatedly realized how ridiculous it sounded on its way out of her brain but by then it was too late to stop it, “…an escort,” she finished, and winced.
Ray looked at her oddly.
“Look!” Michelle said in a rush. “There’s something wrong down in the basements, okay? Really wrong. There’s this… incredibly scary noise,” yep, I was right, I already regret this, “I tried to tell Marigold and she just ordered me to go sort it out. But I… I don’t want to go down there by myself. So that’s why I need an orc.” There. Now you sound like a perfect idiot, with a dash of damsel-in-distress for flavor. Applause, everyone, job well done.
“Oh, really?” Ray stood up straight and let the ruined chair slide onto the floor, where it broke apart wetly. “Well, I’ll go with you, if you want.”
“I’d rather die!” Michelle snapped.
Ray rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine. Whatever.” He crouched down and started stacking up the remains of the chair.
After a few moments, Michelle sighed in defeat. “The problem is that I wouldn’t rather die. All right, fine. Come with me. Do you still have that stupid sword?”
“It’s not stupid, it’s a perfectly balanced ancient artifact of --”
“Whatever. Let’s go get it and do this thing.”
* * * *
“You’re bringing me to your room?” Ray said.
“Don’t get any weird ideas, okay?” Michelle said, crossly. She pushed open the door to the narrow cell and waved Ray inside.
“Nice place,” he said, looking around. “You have furniture and everything. Way better than that closet under the basement stairs Marigold stuck me in. Hey, is there any chance I --”
“Stop running your mouth for five seconds and just listen.”
He shut up, and they listened.
“Huh… I do hear something. From that tiny air shaft in the floor?”
Michelle nodded. Ray got down on his hands and knees and pressed his ear to the opening of the shaft. She didn’t quite understand why he had to do that; the noise had been getting harder and harder to ignore over the past several days and she had even noticed it out in the hall this time. The noise…
The noise wasn’t a growl, or a scratch, or anything like that. It was a long, faint, low, whistling howl that felt cold, like the space between galaxies, and distant, like the space between galaxies. Sometimes it would stop for just long enough for the listener to think it was over, and then it would start again. It hiccupped, and whined, and pulsed, and beat out self-similar patterns that would drive any thinking person mad looking for the hidden truth behind it all.
Ray scratched his head. “Well, it’s kinda spooky, I guess?”
“’Kinda spooky, I guess’? What’s wrong with you?” demanded Michelle. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for a week. Have you ever heard anything like it in your life?”
“No, but I mean…” He gestured around. “If you hadn’t noticed, we’re in an evil sorceress’s castle. This whole place is super creepy. I would have figured it made scary noises all the time.”
“Well, it doesn’t!” Michelle replied. “I’ve been here ten years and I’ve never heard that sound, not until after we arrived here in Archimedea. I’ve never heard…” She took a breath. “Anything. Anything other than the shifting of the chains, and the wind. This place is dead.”
“I mean literally dead. You’ve been here for what, a month now? Have you noticed any mice, rats, even insects?”
“Now that you mention it, no, but…”
“In a gigantic old heap like this, full of rot and ruin, doesn’t that strike you as weird? Well, it’s not because you didn’t notice any. It’s because there aren’t any. That’s a whole other nightmare, by the way. But anyway, everything here is dead, trust me on that. So who or what is making that noise?”
“Something dead?” he offered eventually.
* * * *
There was a lot of stuff below the ground level of the Ancient Flying Castle, as it turned out.
The basements were accessible through the various sculleries. Carrying torches, Ray and Michelle passed through endless rows of shelves filled with moldering crates and racks upon racks of wine barrels. A door in one basement admitted them to the dungeons on the next level below, which turned out to be an appropriately grim and twisty multi-story maze of dank corridors, empty cells, and the occasional guard post littered with equipment rusted beyond all recognition.
“Should I be glad,” Ray said as he dabbed a chalk arrow on one wall, “that there aren’t bodies in any of these cells? Or should I find it ominous?”
“It’s a little ominous,” Michelle admitted. “But I really don’t think there are any giant man-eating monsters down here, if that’s what you’re wondering about.”
“Other than whatever’s making that noise of yours.”
“Yeah, other than that.”
“Ray, why are you here?”
Ray gave her a confused look at this sudden change of topic. “You’re asking me that too? Where else would I be?”
“No!” Michelle snapped. “My question isn’t dumb, for one thing. That’s your hometown right outside, so why don’t you just leave? Are you worried that Marigold will come after you if you run off? She doesn’t care. Give it a week and she probably won’t even remember you were ever here.”
Ray paused. “I don’t really want to go back there. Bad memories.”
“Bad memories?” Michelle said snidely. “You were the big man in Archimedea, as I recall.”
“No. I was…” He hesitated. “I was nobody, so I lied about being somebody. That’s it. And it worked, you know? I lied to everyone and spun bigger and stupider stories and they just kept believing them. I had a whole gang working for me. I had my own ship. I had a beautiful girlfriend. Because I lied.”
“So it worked out for you,” she said.
“Not really. Eventually I got to a point where I couldn’t lie any more, and that was that. That moment was worse than everything I thought I’d gained, because it was all built on nothing. It wasn’t worth it, to go through that, to have it all fall apart in front of me.” Ray glanced at her again. “But as for why I haven’t left, I… kind of like it here, to be honest.”
Michelle stopped short. “You like it here? What, are you nuts? This place sucks.”
“I have a place here!” Ray shot back. “Even if it’s just because Marigold keeps forgetting to throw me out, or whatever. I have a simple thing I’m supposed to do, and I do it, and that’s the end of it. Lots of people don’t have that. Lots of people never have that their whole lives. Marigold’s not so bad, either…”
“Yeah,” Michelle said caustically, “I see you ogling her. Like, all the time. You could stop for maybe five consecutive minutes?”
“I’m only human, all right? But I swear it’s not that. She’s just… honest, you know? She doesn’t tell the lies everyone tells and she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. I wish I had that kind of strength.”
“Easy to be strong when you’re omnipotent,” Michelle muttered. She started walking again and Ray had to hurry to follow her.
“If you hate it here so much,” Ray said, “why don’t you leave?”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Michelle said.
“What, no family?”
“My family dumped me on the doorstep of this stupid castle when I was six years old. I…” She hesitated. “I barely even remember them. I can hardly recall anything before this castle. Just images of my mother and father. I don’t know where they came from or their names or anything. I don’t even know my own last name.”
“Oh.” Ray paused. “I, uh… I guess that’s pretty bad.”
“Yes, it is.”
Mother and father. Even the concepts were jumbled up in her mind. There should be more than that, right? A home? Relatives? Friends? So she’d heard, but those things didn’t exist for her. Her mother, tall and pale and stern. Her father… always smiling, always kind. The images were faded, and they drifted away as she grabbed for them.
They probably still care about you, Xanadu said into her mind. The sword had been uncharacteristically silent for a while, so she jumped a bit in surprise. Ray glanced at her, but she said nothing.
How would you know?
I suppose I wouldn’t. But parents care for their children. There must have been a reason why they did what they did.
I’ve been living with Marigold for ten years, she thought back. I know perfectly well that most people don’t have a reason for anything they do.
The sword didn’t have an answer to that.
“Is this the door we were looking for?” Ray said.
They had come to a tiny portal in a far corner of the dungeons. Even surrounded by antiquity it looked far older than its surroundings, a wrought black frame of raw stone with a similarly black stone door set into it. The air felt colder as they approached.
“Yeah,” Michelle said. “It’s smaller than I remember… of course, the last time I saw it, I was eight. Marigold sent me down to the cellars to get onions and I got so lost.” She shivered. “I don’t even know why she did that, she can just magic up any food she wants. And I don’t think we’ve ever had onions down here. Anyway, I got to this door and for some reason I was so scared by it I turned around and ran all the way back, crying.”
“That’s adorable,” Ray said.
“Shut up.” Michelle ran her hands around the edge of the door. “I’m not sure how you open this, but –”
She felt her fingers sink into the stone surface, and recoiled with a yelp. The door slid open sideways, releasing a puff of ancient black dust. Beyond, a long, smooth ramp descended into the darkness.
“Oh, nice. How did you do that?”
“I just…” Michelle stared at her fingers. “I don’t know.”
“Huh. That’s evil ancient castles for you, I guess.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
They started down.
* * * *
Michelle was feeling increasingly uneasy. The cellars had been okay. The dungeons were creepy, but creepy in a normal sort of way. You didn’t want to be in a dungeon, but you could understand it. The passages below the dungeon, though, were… well, they were weird. They ran in long, sloping, perfectly smooth lines and curves, the walls, floor, and ceiling made of the same cold black stone that the door had been made of. After a few hundred feet Ray and Michelle doused their torches, because the cold black stone actually glowed. Not brightly, but enough to see where they were putting their feet.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Ray said.
“Er…” Michelle frowned. “I feel like it’s this way?”
“You ‘feel like’ it’s this way?”
“Yes,” she snapped. “I ‘feel like’ it’s this way. If you’ve got a better idea, I’m all ears.”
The odd thing was, she did feel like they were going in the right direction. The noise had been inaudible for a while, but now that they were below the dungeons, she could just sense it again, at the edge of her hearing. Hammering, pounding away, beating out its patterns, echoing inside her head, urging her onward faster and faster…
“Do you hear it, Ray?”
“Ray,” she said, “we’re not being very smart, are we?”
Ray was silent for several moments.
“Is this a trick question?” he said finally.
“I thought we were going to find… well, I don’t know what I thought we were going to find, but it’s sure as heck not this. This area doesn’t even feel the same as the rest of the Ancient Flying Castle. I mean… How far down are we? The rock the castle is on is big, but is it this big?”
“We could have just gotten turned around,” Ray said. “These passages are really twisty.”
“And I’m hearing – I’m feeling -- We don’t know what we’re doing,” Michelle said. “We’re just plunging ahead into – into – you know what? Let’s get out of here. Let’s get out of here right now. Screw that stupid noise, I’ll just find somewhere else to sleep. If Marigold ever cares enough to find out what it is she can come down here herself.”
“Well,” Ray said. “I don’t know. It’s weird, sure, but we’ve gotten this far without seeing anything really dangerous, right?”
She glared at him. “Oh, sorry, Mr. Manly Man. Do you want to prove how tough you are and keep going, then?”
Ray thought about that.
“I guess,” he said eventually, “if you want to leave, we can go. Just so it’s on the record that I didn’t lose my nerve.”
At that moment, a distant skittering became audible.
“You… do hear that, don’t you, Ray?” Michelle stammered.
“Yeah, I hear that.”
They waited a moment. The skittering and scratching became louder.
“It sounds like rats. But there aren’t any rats in the castle, right? You said they were all dead, right?” Ray’s face was barely visible in the pale, unidirectional light. All of a sudden he looked distinctly unnerved. “I’m not a huge fan of rats.”
“So…” Michelle said. “I’m thinking… Maybe it’s not that the rats are dead. Maybe it’s more that they are all… here.”
There seemed to be thousands of claws. No screeching, no chittering. Just the scratch of keratin on stone.
Ray twisted around. “They’re coming from back up the corridor. The way we came.”
“We should run,” Michelle said.
* * * *
Michelle felt as if she were in a dream, and not a good one. The corridors branched, and twisted, and at every point the scuttling claws became louder. They looked back once, and the darkness seethed. They did not look again.
Despite their hopes of escape, their path continued downwards, back and forth, at a steeper and steeper angle until they were nearly skidding downwards. They finally slammed to a halt at another black stone door, identical twin to the one at the dungeon exit.
“Open it,” Ray said. “Do the thing you did upstairs.”
“I don’t know what I did!” Michelle cried. She felt frantically around the edge of the door, willing it to open.
“Come on!” she muttered. “Come on –”
Again the bizarre feeling of her fingers sinking into stone, and the door slid aside.
“I got it! Let’s go!”
They scrambled through the portal, the door slid neatly shut again behind them, and they slumped to the floor, gasping.
“How…” Ray managed after a while. “How do you think we’re going to get back out?”
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to,” Michelle puffed.
“Gotcha.” Ray looked around. “Is this what you were looking for?”
The chamber they were in was narrow, perhaps twenty feet across, and octagonal. The arch of the high, domed ceiling was invisible and it was instead filled with stars and familiar constellations, the Moon gleaming high overhead and the tiny spark of the Second Moon just above it, all of them shining as if they were being seen from a rural mountainside on a perfectly clear winter’s night. The centerpiece of the room was a circular gray table big enough for six people to stand around. In the center of the table was a glass ball about a foot across, and inside the ball hovered a single brilliant light, pulsing and flashing and changing color in tune with the noise – the noise, which was loud, almost deafening, pounding, screaming, and below it endless layers of subtlety, of information teasing, tearing at one’s consciousness…
“Hey,” Ray said, as if it was actually possible to be heard in that room. He was pointing at the ceiling. “Check it out. That’s what the sky looks like from right here in Archimedea. Look at the Second Moon – we’re just far enough north that it’s visible all year long, it never goes behind the regular Moon.” He considered. “See how it’s directly above it right now? It’s supposed to be good luck when you see that.”
“Yeah,” Michelle murmured. “I feel so lucky right now.”
She stumbled towards the table and pressed her hands to it. The light seemed to rotate, and below it colorful runes and patterns spread across the table. Ray hurried forward to look at it.
“That’s a map,” he said. “We’re… here, I think. Yeah, that outline is the coast Archimedea is on, there’s the Great Sea and all the islands…”
Michelle stared into the light.
Ray frowned as he peered more closely. “The coastline looks wrong,” he said. “And what are these continents over here? I should recognize these, I was pretty good at geography before I dropped out of school…”
This boy, she thought. This aggravating boy.
Ray rudely pushed in front of her and started poking fruitlessly at the table. He was still talking, but the words didn’t make any sense.
Staring at his back, Michelle slowly drew Xanadu out of its scabbard.
What are you doing, Michelle? the sword said.
She silently raised the sword.
Michelle, Ray Vincent may be a pest but this isn’t the best way to –
She struck downwards. Xanadu twisted in her hands and spun sideways across Ray’s shoulder, slicing open his bodysuit and drawing a line of blood. Ray yelped and stumbled to one side, clutching his injured shoulder and turning to face her.
“What did you do that for!” he said, looking aggrieved.
Michelle drew back and struck again. Her sword hit metal as Ray managed to get his own blade in front of him in time.
“Seriously,” he said, “what did I do? I thought I was being really good.”
She struck again. Ray was able to block this one with slightly less flailing.
“Is it about the, you know, ogling? I’ll try not to, I promise. I mean… I’ll keep it to a minimum.”
Another strike. More powerful. She felt strong. The sword seemed to be struggling in her hands, but it couldn’t stop her. Ray stumbled backwards.
“Wait!” said Ray quickly. “I get it, okay? There’s subtext here! I wasn’t looking at you because I figured you’d get mad! I mean, more mad than usual. But if you’re actually jealous then I can certainly make the time to –”
She screamed and leaped towards him, driving the sword towards his chest.
Xanadu twisted again, much more violently this time. Something snapped inside Michelle’s wrist and the sword flew away from her suddenly nerveless hand and into the darkness. She tripped and collapsed onto the ground.
The noise became a roar, pouring into her mind.
“Michelle!” someone said at a great distance, but she didn’t know who it was. The icy coldness of the floor pressed against her face, seeped into her body, into her heart, and everything went black.
* * * *
Two heartbeats passed. Michelle opened her eyes to brilliant yellow-white light.
She was lying on her back and staring up at the Moon directly overhead, but she had never seen the Moon like this. It was vast, a huge, yellow, crater-covered bowl lowering at her, filling a third of the sky, threatening to crash down on her. The sky around it glittered with thousands of brilliantly colored stars. Michelle cringed from its glory and instinctively threw her arm in front of her face. The arm didn’t hurt, she realized, and she felt light as a feather.
“Be at ease, my child,” said a voice. “You are in no danger.”
She turned to see a tall female figure moving towards her across a flat, blindingly white plain. A pale, beautiful, ethereal woman, dressed in a gray shroud and hood, her arms and legs strangely elongated. Silvery hair floated around her face and drifted behind her as she moved.
“You have done well, Michelle,” said the woman, as she knelt behind her and raised Michelle’s head into her lap. A feeling of comfort and safety washed over Michelle as the woman did this. She couldn’t describe it, or find a word for it. She had never felt it before.
“Who are you?” she managed. “Where is this?”
One heartbeat, two heartbeats.
“There is so much to say,” said the woman. “I don’t even know where to begin. You brought the castle to where it needed to be. And you heard the signal and found your way here. That is good. But there is more you must do. Go north, Michelle.”
“North?” she asked. “Where…”
One heartbeat, two heartbeats.
“It was once called,” the woman said, “Low Memnon. I do not know its name now.” She looked sad. “It has been so long.”
“Please,” Michelle stammered. “Who are you? I know you.”
Again, one heartbeat, two heartbeats.
“My child. Shh.” The woman stroked Michelle’s face gently and tucked a stray strand of brown hair behind her ear.
She was about to speak again, but then looked up sharply, at some unseen signal. “How did…”
The woman paused, then shook her head. “It seems our time together is being cut short.” She looked back down at Michelle. “You have many trials ahead of you, but remember: your experiences have made you strong. You will prevail. Go to Low Memnon. You will know what to do when you get there. We will correct the mistakes of this fallen world, and I will see you again.”
The woman placed her fingers above Michelle’s eyes, and drew her eyelids closed.
* * * *
“Okay, seriously, wake up now. This isn’t funny. What if she has a concussion? I wish I’d paid attention in that first aid class.”
Michelle twisted her head around to see Ray standing nearby and fretting uselessly. The noise was… gone, blessedly gone, and the room was silent. Atop the table, the glass ball was shattered, all the glowing runes and diagrams vanished along with the map of the sky projected on the ceiling. Her whole right arm felt like it was on fire.
“Ray…” she said weakly. Ray jumped, and practically dove to where she was propped up against the wall. He looked hesitant for a moment, then decisively grabbed her hand – the left one, fortunately.
“Are you all right?” he said. “You, uh… you kind of freaked out back there and tried to kill me.”
“I did?” she said. “It’s… blurry.” She frowned. “I did, didn’t I?”
“Yeah. You were pretty serious. Oh, be careful, I think you broke your wrist somehow… I didn’t do it!” he added quickly. “I’m not sure what happened. After that you just fell over and I think… I think you stopped breathing for a moment, and that light was…” He glanced back at the table. “I sorta panicked and smashed it, hoping that would bring you back. I’m glad I was right.”
Or at least you meant well, Michelle thought to herself, remembering the woman with the silvery hair.
“I haven’t heard the rats outside for a while. We might be able to get out of here and get your wrist looked at. Can you stand?” he said.
Michelle made an experimental effort at getting her feet under her.
“I think so,” she said. “Can… can you get my sword?”
Ray looked uneasy. “If I give it back, you’re, uh… you’re not going to try to…”
“I don’t want to kill you, Ray,” Michelle sighed.
A huge smile spread over Ray Vincent’s face.
“That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” he said.
After returning safely Michelle had told Marigold the story of what had gone on deep in the Ancient Flying Castle, keeping only the strange vision to herself. Marigold had seemed genuinely interested to hear about the secret chambers at the bottom of the dungeons, and had even been generous enough to use her magic to fix Michelle’s wrist while she listened. Upon learning that Ray had smashed the magical device down there, though, she had punished both of them with even more duties in cleaning up the endless wreckage in the castle. This was the first day in weeks that Michelle had been able to get out into town, and even then it was with a giant list of errands assigned by Marigold. Still, it would be enough.
Fall was in full effect in Archimedea. The city-state was farther north than Tesla, and Michelle clutched her assistant’s robes around her against the gathering chill of the late afternoon. Its citizens didn’t seem too concerned about the weather, though: they wore gaily colored jackets and scarves as they went about their usual routines, cheerfully buying and selling in the endless street markets that filled the broad avenues of the mercantile city. Harvests had apparently been glorious this year, and exotic foodstuffs and products from all over the known world were everywhere.
She had worried a bit originally that the locals would be hostile to anyone associated with the sorceress. However, the opposite was the case. Marigold’s self-servingly generous offer of her pet orc army to repair the damage she had done to the city had completely flipped the script, just as she had said. The orcs were genuinely effective workers, too, although they had a certain amount of tunnel vision -- they had transformed the docks into a heavily militarized zone, filled with strongpoints, guard towers and carefully laid out fields of fire, even equipped with salvaged deck guns from Archimedean patrol boats that had been overturned or sunk by the castle’s violent arrival. Some merchants grumbled at this, but the local nobles and military officers seemed pleased. Political stuff gave Michelle a headache, but she could at least tell the high-ups were clearly worried about something and appreciated any help they could get.
Michelle glanced at the contents of one of the market stalls she was passing, and sighed. Marigold had also applied her own personal touch: she was frequently seen out and about in the city and had acquired a substantial local fan club for the city’s glamorous and sexy new arrival, complete with a liberal trade in engravings and daguerreotypes of herself. The stall was doing a brisk business.
The most annoying part, Michelle reluctantly admitted to herself, was that none of that newfound adoration seemed to wash over on her.
Still, there was something to be said for anonymity. Michelle crossed a square in front of an elegant marble fountain with a statue of somebody-or-other on top gazing keenly into the future, and glanced back and forth before entering a tall, whitewashed building with a tiny nameplate on the wall next to its entrance: ROYAL ARCHIVES. This particular errand was for her alone.
* * * *
Michelle entered the reading room, took a breath to address the person in it and froze.
The woman had her back to the door. She was in civilian clothing, wearing an elegantly cut knee-length blue dress and leather boots, but the long curls of red hair and the cat-like ears were a dead giveaway who it actually was.
Michelle silently started to back out of the room. The instant she moved, though, the woman’s left ear swiveled around like a gun barrel to point directly at her.
“Michelle, wasn’t it?” said Lady Xiang.
Michelle stopped. “Ah. Yes. Lady Xiang. Hello. I, er, wasn’t expecting to meet you here.”
The tall beast-woman turned to face her. “Yes. Just doing a little research. On that castle of yours, in fact.”
“Oh, well. That’s nice.”
“Oh! Uh…” Michelle cast desperately about for a convincing lie and found the cupboard bare. “Me too,” she admitted.
“Really,” said Lady Xiang. “I’d have imagined the sorceress already knew everything there was to know about her own castle.”
“You’d be surprised,” Michelle said. “Marigold isn’t usually the most, um, curious person. I… heard somewhere that the castle might be connected to Archimedea in some way, and the chief archivist said there was this book someone had checked out, and…”
“Oh, yes. Come over here and take a look at it.”
Surprised by this friendly gesture, Michelle stepped over to the table. Lady Xiang had a large, leather-bound book open in front of her. Its pages were yellowed and fragile and the beast-woman turned them with great care. She had tiny claws at the tips of her fingers instead of nails, Michelle noticed.
“Does this look familiar?” Lady Xiang said. On one page was an intricate sketch of a floating island covered in a forest of towers and spires.
“Maybe?” Michelle said doubtfully. “It looks kind of different, though. There isn’t a wall around the outside, and there aren’t any chains.”
“Do you think it’s a different ancient flying castle?”
“Well, I mean, it sounds silly when you put it like that, but…”
“It says here,” Lady Xiang said, “that once upon a time there was a great flood that destroyed the ancient city of Ca’raa, which once stood where Archimedea stands now. Our historians believe that this was caused when the northern glaciers started to melt nearly three thousand years ago, by the way. According to this chronicler, the survivors of the flood awoke the next day to see ‘a great rock drifting through the Sky, and upon its Surface, a profusion of Towers of the Darkest Black, that chilled all those who looked upon this terrible Omen.’ A bit of poetic license, and it’s obviously gone through many translations, but one can see where they were going with it.”
Michelle felt a chill, too. “Um… this… northern glacier place? What’s it called?”
“Formally, that would be the New Territories,” Lady Xiang said. “Our troublesome recent acquisition. But once upon a time it was called Memnon.”
Michelle’s legs wobbled and she all but fell into the chair next to Lady Xiang. “Really.”
“Are you familiar with it?”
“I… heard the name somewhere.”
“The same ‘somewhere’ you heard the castle might be connected with our city?”
“Hmm. Since I have you here,” Lady Xiang said, “I had another thing I wanted to ask you about.”
Michelle’s eyes involuntarily went to the woman’s claws. Had they extended, just a little? She felt a powerful and atavistic urge to run.
“That fellow minion of yours,” Lady Xiang said. “I could swear I recognize him from someplace.”
The change of subject nearly gave her whiplash. “Uh… oh, probably not. He just has one of those faces.”
“And one of those names,” Lady Xiang said. “Ray, wasn’t it?”
“Errr,” Michelle said. “Well, that’s really more of a nickname. It’s short for… Ray… yyyyy…”
Lady Xiang looked at her.
“Rayee,” she finished weakly.
Lady Xiang continued to stare. Michelle began to sweat.
“It’s Elvish. His great-grandfather was an elf, you see.”
“I’d like to meet Rayee again,” Lady Xiang said with a perfectly straight face. “And ask him some questions. You see, there’s this submarine that went missing from our military port a while back. It turned up again a month or two ago, when someone left an anonymous tip that the submarine had been abandoned in a cove near Welles Point. That someone also left detailed testimony blaming the theft on one Ray Vincent, as well as a number of perhaps not germane but clearly heartfelt additional remarks speculating on his ancestry and deriding his genitalia.”
“Well, how about that,” Michelle said.
“I am given to understand that Ray Vincent was recently seen at your castle in Tesla. Well, that would be your castle here, in Archimedea, now. Under my jurisdiction, as it happens.”
“Perhaps your friend Rayee saw him as well?”
Michelle stood abruptly. “I… I have to go.”
A vise-like grip closed about her forearm.
“Why now?” Lady Xiang smiled. Her canines were very sharp. “Just when we’re getting along so famously. How about if you start telling me the truth about your friend, Michelle? The King needs to know the facts about his new guests. And you don’t really seem to be that fond of him anyway, right?”
I suppose I could throw him, she glanced at Lady Xiang, to the wolves. And why not? I hate him, after all. A few words in the right places and Ray Vincent could be out of my life forever…
She took a deep breath.
“No,” she said, to her surprise.
Lady Xiang’s smile turned into a frown. Her grip tightened.
A distant shriek from outside became audible, then deafening. Light flashed outside, followed by a loud explosion from farther into the city. The ground trembled. Then it happened again, and again. Distant bells began to ring.
Lady Xiang looked up sharply, and then at Michelle.
“Is this it, then?” she said quietly. “Marigold got a little hungry, and decided to eat us first after all?”
“No!” Michelle spluttered. “I mean… no! I mean, I’m pretty sure she didn’t! She would have told me! Probably!”
“Let’s just see.” Lady Xiang stood, dragging Michelle to her feet as well, and walked with long strides towards a set of double doors that opened onto the reading room’s balcony. She threw them open and stepped outside, pulling Michelle with her.
“There!” Michelle said, pointing triumphantly. “See? That’s totally not us.” Her jaw dropped open. “Wait. Crap. Are we being bombed? Somebody’s bombing us!”
Indeed, dozens of biplane aircraft were gliding overhead, just visible in the deepening twilight. Every so often, something would tumble out of one of them and explode in the streets below. Several bombs had already targeted the palace at the top of the hill and smoke was pouring from it in three places. Bells were ringing everywhere, now. Gunfire was rising upwards from a few positions on the city walls and in the palace, but it was sporadic and didn’t seem to be finding any targets.
As they watched, a flash of light sailed overhead from the direction of the harbor and slammed into the city, blasting a three-story building to pieces.
Lady Xiang’s hand went towards her hip, but there was no weapon there. She glanced at Michelle. “You aren’t armed either?”
“Would it sound weird if I told you that my sword and I kind of had a falling-out?”
“Yes, it would sound weird.”
“Oh. Well, that’s what happened.” Michelle looked down for a moment. Xanadu had seemed… angry, ever since the fight under the castle, and unwilling to accept that she didn’t want to talk about what had happened there. She wasn’t sure if it was upset with her, or over something else, but it had become increasingly uncomfortable “speaking” with the sword and she had ended up leaving it in her cell.
She turned back to Lady Xiang as what the woman had said finally sunk in. “Wait, do you think we’ll need to protect ourselves? Is this just an air raid, or…”
Lady Xiang sighed. “Not if there’s a ship shelling the city, too. This is an invasion, and it’s almost certainly the League. They will try to occupy us.”
“I don’t know much about politics,” Michelle said, “but the League? That’s, like, all the nations around here, right? Including you guys, technically? Why are they attacking?”
“The League wanted collective control over the New Territories, but we got the territory fair and square. Well, we kind of got stuck with it fair and square. The Akavian Empire traded it to us in exchange for debt relief, one of those it’s-this-or-nothing kind of trades. It’s a worthless wasteland, impossible to defend. But then the League started throwing their weight around and demanding authority over it, and it became a matter of principle. King Rudolf refused to give in.” There was an admiring tone in Lady Xiang’s voice.
“So what, they’re going to take it by force? Do you think your army can hold them off?”
“No.” She looked up, shading her eyes. “Come on, we’ve got to leave. This place is full of old paper. It’ll go up like a bonfire if one of those shells hits it.”
Michelle nodded. As they hurried back across the room towards the stairs, she scooped up the giant, leather-bound book that Lady Xiang had been reading and took it with her, clutching it to her chest. She wasn’t quite sure why.
* * * *
Their desperate flight lasted for approximately forty-five seconds.
“Who are all these people?” Lady Xiang demanded. Half a dozen people were standing in the lobby of the Royal Archives. “Why are you here? This place isn’t safe.”
Michelle recognized the archivist on duty, a bearded, bespectacled man who had helped her earlier, but the others were strangers. “Lady Xiang,” he said. “They ran in here a few moments ago, saying that enemy troops are heading this way.”
“Are you sure?” she demanded, rounding on a short, terrified-looking woman. “What did you see? Speak clearly, now.”
“T-there were two… tanks, I guess, or something?” the woman stammered. “And a whole bunch of men wearing black clothes and masks. T-they all had guns.”
Lady Xiang frowned. “There’s no way any invaders could be this far into the city already. It must be a commando unit that smuggled itself in, in advance. Here for a reason.”
“Where do you think they’re going?” Michelle asked.
“There’s only one entrance to this square,” Lady Xiang replied. “And the only government building in the square is this one.”
A renewed wave of panic rippled through the crowd.
“Silence!” she shouted. Her voice cut through the increasing chaos of the air raid outside. The crowd was instantly quiet.
“You are free citizens of Archimedea. I will not have you whining and mewling like you have already been defeated. Our city is strong. Our King is strong! And the League will rue the day when –”
Behind her, the front door slammed open. Lady Xiang began to turn around.
Everything suddenly seemed to move very slowly. There was a deafening crack, a flash of light. Blood fountained out of Lady Xiang’s back and Michelle felt like she had been kicked in the chest by a mule. She crashed to the floor.
The beast-woman snarled and leapt, claws extended, at the masked men flooding into the Archives lobby. Guns roared, twice, three times. Then she started to hear the screams.
Michelle was covered in blood. She groped at herself in panic but couldn’t find a wound. Then she looked at the giant leather book, which had landed next to her. More blood was spattered all over the cover and a hole was punched almost all the way through it.
As time wrenched itself back into order, she drew her head up just in time to see Lady Xiang swipe viciously at the neck of a man in all black. The man collapsed to the ground, making a terrible whimpering noise, and abruptly the beast-woman collapsed next to him as well. Four other men lay nearby, also unmoving.
“Back, everybody!” She heard the voice of the archivist, a million miles away. “Get back! They have armored cars outside! Through that door, now!”
Michelle staggered to her hands and knees and scrabbled forward through the pools of blood, towards Lady Xiang. The beast-woman was still alive, but gasping and panting rapidly. She had been hit at least three times.
“Lady Xiang,” Michelle whispered, grasping her hand.
“It wasn’t you who betrayed us,” said the other woman. “I’ll give you that.”
“What can I do?”
“Just…” Her breath had slowed and her voice was fading. “Tell Rudolf –”
She closed her eyes and was still.
“Don’t give up, Lady Xiang!” cried Michelle. “I’ll… I’ll think of something!”
She stared wildly around the ruined and now-empty lobby, at the dead commandos, the smell of smoke from their rifles still wafting through the air and mixing with the stink of blood. She looked out into the street, at the shape of a steel carriage resting on four large metal wheels. A gun turret on its back was swiveling to face the entrance to the Archives.
Then there was an animalistic screech from outside and another armored car flew through the air and smashed into the first one, flipping it over and sending it crashing into a building across the street.
I don’t think I can take much more of this.
Moments later, a new figure jogged into the lobby carrying a giant sword, and stopped short.
“What the heck happened in here?” Ray Vincent said.
“Ray?!” Michelle stammered. “What are you doing here?”
“Rescuing you, I guess. Come on, Marigold’s right outside.” He finally seemed to notice Lady Xiang. “Holy crap. Is that what’s-her-name from the royal guard?”
Something about Ray’s typical idiocy snapped her out of it. “Yes it is,” she said. “Now stop asking dumb questions and help me get her outside.”
“Okay, okay. Wow.”
* * * *
The scene outside didn’t reduce the surreality of the day. Bells and fire alarms were ringing endlessly. The air raid seemed to have ended, but shells were still sailing in from the direction of the waterfront and crashing into the city. Firelight flickered beyond the nearby structures. More ominously, Michelle could hear distant gunfire in the streets, and the occasional thump of explosives.
The two armored cars were mangled together in the wreckage of the building across the road and burning merrily. There was a huge claw-shaped dent in the back of one of them. And in the middle of the square was…
I don’t believe it.
Parked in the middle of the square was a massive black sleigh covered in spikes, and lashed to its front were two enormous griffins. The monstrous beasts were sixteen feet long, with the head, wings, and forelegs of eagles and the bodies of lions, and lit by distant shellfire they loomed over the square like the creatures out of nightmare that they truly were. Slightly spoiling the effect, one of the griffins was busily picking things out of its fur and eating them while the other was gazing keenly off into the distance at nothing in particular.
“Assistant!” Marigold shouted happily from the front of the vehicle, where she was holding the griffins’ reins. “The Sleigh of Terror! I just got the last coat of paint on this afternoon! What do you think?”
“I’m beyond thinking right now,” Michelle said.
“Yes, I know, it’s just that wonderful, isn’t it?” The sorceress frowned and lowered the reins. “Who is that you two are carrying? Wait, is that what’s-her-name from the royal guard?”
I must be getting punished for something. “Yes, it is.”
“What happened to her?”
“She got shot.”
“Well, that was foolish. Why would anyone want to do that?”
“She was protecting me!” Michelle shouted.
This silenced Marigold.
Michelle choked and tears started to pour down her face. “She was protecting everyone in there. She was already d-dying and she didn’t even hesitate for one moment.”
“Well,” the sorceress said at length. “I suppose that’s fine, if you’re into that.”
Marigold stepped out of the Sleigh of Terror, walked silently to where Ray and Michelle were holding Lady Xiang, and leaned over the beast-woman’s unmoving face.
She reached down, and tapped her on the nose.
Lady Xiang’s eyes snapped open as she screamed and arched her back wildly. Michelle and Ray both recoiled and nearly dropped her as bloody fragments of metal rocketed out of the beast-woman’s body, one of them missing Michelle’s head by inches, and embedded themselves in the brickwork front of the Royal Archives. She then abruptly went limp and her eyes closed once more, but she was breathing again: shallowly, but regularly.
“Don’t say I never do anything for you, assistant,” Marigold said quietly. “Now, can we go already?”
* * * *
They had quickly loaded the now-merely-unconscious Lady Xiang into the Sleigh of Terror and climbed aboard, and with a few beats of the griffins’ powerful wings the sleigh was airborne and gaining altitude, rising into a smoky evening sky lit by a blood-red Moon and Second Moon on the horizon and the burning city below. Ray had seemed irresolute for a few moments, and then abruptly sat down next to a trembling Michelle and put his arms around her. She didn’t stop him.
“That, er… that looked pretty bad in there,” Ray said. “Do you think you’re going to be all right?”
“I don’t need your pity,” Michelle said.
“Fine, sorry. Never mind.” Ray began to back away, but she grabbed his arm.
“I also didn’t say you could let go.” She sniffled.
The sound of gunfire faded below them as Marigold took the Sleigh of Terror on a long, circular orbit around the city.
“A diplomatic packet arrived at the castle a little while ago, assistant,” Marigold said eventually. She didn’t turn around to face the two of them.
Michelle looked up.
“It was a message to the effect that the League has no quarrel with an unaffiliated sorceress, and is willing to grant me direct political power in the city of Archimedea as long as I decline to intervene in this little… disagreement. Oh, and allow the League to take the New Territories.”
“Are… are you going to take the deal?”
Marigold didn’t answer for several moments.
At last, she said, “It would seem to be an obvious choice, wouldn’t it? Except.” She paused. “Someone who is willing to propose an agreement like that is someone who would be willing to break it the moment they think they can get away with it, don’t you think? And there’s one other minor detail.”
Now, Marigold turned. Her face was cold and pitiless, and glowed in the firelight of the burning city.
“Every inch of Archimedea is already mine. I shall not accept some tin-pot invaders telling me what bits of it I may or may not keep for myself merely because they have mechanized infantry, an air force, and a dreadnaught. Do you hear me, assistant? I won’t have it.”
Michelle and Ray stared, shocked.
The sorceress turned back. “The nerve,” she muttered to herself. “The very cheek.”
She pulled on the reins and the Sleigh of Terror banked left, towards the royal palace on the hill.
* * * *
The atmosphere in the war room of the Archimedean royal palace was remarkably calm, considering the flicker of exploding shells outside and the fierce gun battles going on in the streets approximately two miles away. King Rudolf II, in particular, was the picture of unruffled relaxation as he stood at the side of the room, holding a wineglass. Only his eyes moved, glancing rapidly from the crowded strategic table at one side of the room to the huddled, urgently speaking officers and civilians at the other, taking in everything.
“No word yet from Captain Timons?” said Vembert, the War Minister. He was a short, well-dressed, rotund man, with an atmosphere of nervous energy.
“None, Minister,” answered Vulkan. The senior guard wore a simple, dark-colored uniform instead of his flashy ceremonial gear, and had a short-barreled rifle slung on his back. “But he won’t dare surface until he’s ready to attack. We just have to wait.”
There was a commotion outside, and the doors to the chamber slammed open. The guards at the entrance to the room and several of the officers reached for the pistols and swords at their hips.
“Relax, everyone!” announced a cheerful voice. “Marigold the Sorceress is here, and I’ll have this odd little invasion problem of yours sorted out in no time.”
“Marigold,” nodded King Rudolf, as the sorceress strode into the room, radiating serene self-confidence.
“Your Majesty,” Marigold nodded back. Hesitantly, after a glance at the King, the others in the room lowered their weapons.
The King began to speak again and then froze, stock-still. Behind Marigold, Ray and Michelle had entered, and between them, they were barely managing to support Lady Xiang, her clothing torn and bloody.
The King started forward before checking himself and regaining his calm demeanor. It was so brief, Michelle almost thought she had imagined it.
“Lady Xiang,” the King said, his voice betraying no emotion. “We feared the worst.”
“Your Majesty. It was very nearly the case,” the beast-woman said. “An enemy commando unit attempted to seize the Archives while I was there. The sorceress…”
She seemed to be screwing up her courage to say something. Everyone in the room waited attentively.
“The sorceress,” Lady Xiang finally ground out, “was of some use in resolving the situation.”
“So generous,” murmured Marigold.
“Are you wounded?” the King asked.
“I’ll…” Lady Xiang looked like she was having a hard time coming up with the right words to describe what had happened. “I’ll live. Tell me how I may be of use to you, Your Majesty.”
“The fact that you have survived,” said King Rudolf, “is of infinite use to us all by itself. Vulkan, please assist the Lady.” The tall guard nodded, and hurried forward to collect Lady Xiang and help her towards a nearby couch.
King Rudolf turned to Marigold. “Our thanks, Sorceress,” he said formally, “for bringing our advisor back to us.”
Marigold smiled. “I wouldn’t have missed that touching reunion for the world. Such unbridled emotion is liable to bring a woman to tears! Now, what’s going on? Nothing good, I assume.”
The King nodded to Vembert, who hurried forward, jowls shaking.
“Madam, er, Sorceress,” he said. “The situation is on the knife’s edge. The city would have already fallen, were it not for your orcs.” He gestured out one window of the war room, towards the harbor. Close-in, the water was a maze of burning ships. “The League wasn’t expecting those fortifications and their amphibious landing has been completely stalled, allowing us to focus all of our efforts on resisting the mechanized units that came overland. However –”
There was a flash of light from a long, dark shadow on the horizon. Another shriek echoed overhead and an explosion shook the room. Some of the younger officers glanced upwards nervously as dust cascaded down from the ceiling.
“— a ship identified as the Trimarine dreadnaught Citizen Le Bas has been shelling us continuously from out of the orcs’ range. And even without it, the League can overwhelm us by sheer weight of numbers. The enemy’s main infantry force is still waiting outside the city, and once their armor breaks our lines, they will move in as well and that will be the end of it.” His mouth seemed to tremble for a moment, and then he turned to the King. “Your Majesty, as War Minister, I accept responsibility. I should have anticipated this. I will submit to whatever consequences you deem are necessary.”
The King smiled humorlessly. “Minister, we can schedule the recriminations for tomorrow morning, if we still have our liberty when the sun comes up. In the meantime, I have every confidence in you.” He looked back over. “Sorceress Marigold, what are your intentions?”
“Your Majesty, I will need your troops to get some distance away from the enemy. So I can work.”
“If they are in close contact with the enemy it will be difficult to coordinate a withdrawal,” Lady Xiang spoke up, “without taking extensive casualties. We’ll need some sort of signal. Something everyone will hear.”
“With the grace of God, that will be arranged,” said the King. He glanced over at Vulkan. “You know what we’re waiting for. See to the details.”
“Your Majesty,” nodded the tall guard. He hurried towards the strategy table and the array of wired telephones surrounding it.
“Very well then. I shall await your signal.” With that Marigold gestured to one of the tall, narrow windows of the chamber and it flew open. She then walked calmly in long strides towards the window, stepped up onto the sill, stepped out into thin air, and sailed away into the night, long black cape billowing behind her.
“Unnerving,” Lady Xiang said. “And she didn’t say what her plan was. Must we put our trust in sorceresses, Your Majesty?”
The King gazed out the window after her. “Sorceresses do what they will, Lady, whether or not we put our trust in them. We shall see what happens.”
The next half hour crawled past. Michelle watched officers jog back and forth between the strategy table and the senior ministers, each time with increasingly dire looks on their faces. Shells continued to land in the city at regular intervals. The distant gunfire grew in intensity and seemed to be getting closer. Occasionally, some of the guards and soldiers at the entrance would check their weapons and eye the doors.
She glanced over at Ray, who was sitting next to her. He had a dejected look on his face.
“I didn’t think this is how it was going to end,” he said.
“Why not?” she answered. “How did you think it was going to end?”
“Well, to be honest I figured someone like Lady Xiang would kill me. Then after that scene in the castle I figured Mika would kill me. Or maybe Kerrigan. But at least it would be for something I did.” He shook his head. “I wanted to be the person who changed the world and now the world is going to roll right over me.”
“Sounds about right,” Michelle said sadly.
Abruptly night turned to day outside. Seconds later there was a thunderous roar, drowning out the gunfire, and the castle shook.
“Was that it?” cried Vembert. Heedless of enemy fire, he hurried to the window, then looked back at the rest of the room. “Yes! He did it! It’s sinking! The Le Bas is sinking!”
Indeed, the long, low line of the dreadnaught on the horizon was cracked in two. In its center, an immense plume of water and debris was still rising towards the sky.
“Look at that explosion! He must have hit her magazine with the first torpedo,” cheered Vembert. “Brilliant, Timons, brilliant!”
“Torpedo?” said Ray, suddenly. “You’re not telling me the Aquila is out there? It’s been rebuilt?”
Lady Xiang turned sharply towards him.
“Uh,” Ray stammered, “I… heard about it, from… some guy.”
“Getting reports that the enemy advance is slowing down!” called out Vulkan from the table. “The explosion of the Le Bas was the signal. Our troops are breaking contact and beginning their withdrawal in good order!”
“The enemy’s flag was on the Le Bas,” said Vembert. “Fortune smiles upon us.”
“Michelle. What is the sorceress going to do?” Lady Xiang demanded. “The League forces won’t take long to reorganize. This is her moment.”
“Well, I, er…” Michelle said, startled at being called on. “It’ll probably be…”
From the opposite direction to the harbor, balefire-green light poured into the room. Everyone turned.
A tiny dot in the sky was surrounded by an eye-twisting halo of deep magic. From it, green lines of force played down into the suburbs of the city.
The lines abruptly wrenched themselves upwards. Michelle barely made out the silhouettes of tanks and armored vehicles at their termini before they sailed away into the evening sky and vanished.
The green light disappeared.
“Do you hear that?” whispered Vembert.
The gunfire was gone. The city was silent.
“Probably something really worrying,” Michelle said.
* * * *
Michelle didn’t get back to the Ancient Flying Castle until the next morning. The League’s ambassador had begged for a cease-fire so that their infantry could retreat, which the King had magnanimously granted, but reaching that point had taken hours. Finally, as the sun was peeking over the horizon at a shell-shocked city, Marigold had returned, accepted the slightly terrified thanks of the locals, swept up her minions, and brought them home.
Thinking of nothing but her bed, Michelle staggered into her cell and stopped in her tracks.
Resting on the bed was the sword Xanadu in its scabbard, where she had left it… just yesterday? It felt like a million years ago.
She fell onto the bed and gripped the sword.
“Xanadu?” she said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what I did… I don’t know why you’re upset. But I almost died today. And you’ve been so kind to me. If I don’t make it… I don’t want to leave things like this.”
You shouldn’t be apologizing, the sword responded. I should. We’ve both been keeping secrets.
“Yes,” she said gratefully. “Let me stop doing that right now.”
She poured out the story of what had happened in the basement of the castle. The noise, the “signal,” taking over her mind and making her attempt to kill Ray. Then the vision, or dream, or whatever: the vast Moon directly overhead, the glowing plane below, and the tall, gentle woman and her strange words and strange instructions.
She left out nothing and at the end Xanadu was silent for a while.
“I think,” Michelle said, “you knew something about this all along. You’ve been around for a while, after all.”
That is correct, replied the sword.
It paused again, but she could feel that it was trying to decide what to say.
I can’t tell you everything, it said finally. But I must tell you this. Your vision was real. And I know that woman.
Michelle’s eyes widened. “You do? Who is she? Tell me!”
Her name is Reve, and you mustn’t trust her. She has been fighting a war for longer than you can imagine for her own vision of the future of humanity. In the name of that war she has committed unspeakable acts, incomprehensible acts, endangered the future of the world. There is no reason to think she has changed her ways now.
“That can’t be right!” Michelle said, surprised at her own vehemence. “She can’t be a bad person! When I was there… She made me feel like…” She groped for words. “Like I belonged,” she finished. “Like I was home. Like I had a place. Like I was… w-was…”
She felt ridiculous.
“Like I was loved,” Michelle finished in a very small voice.
People are complicated, said Xanadu sharply. The longer they live, the more complicated they become. And Reve has lived for a very, very, very long time. Don’t think that because she is capable of great evil that she is not capable of great love as well.
“Well… if she wants me to go to this Low Memnon place, I just don’t go, right? I could run away, yeah? That would spoil her plans.” Though something in Michelle’s mind rebelled at the thought of disappointing the strange woman.
You know, I don’t think you could, the sword told her.
“What do you mean?”
If you were the sort of person who ran away from problems, would you still be in this castle?
Michelle pulled at her hair helplessly. “Then what do I do?”
Reve prefers to operate through manipulation. Putting the right person in the right place, and that person is you… or so she believes. We’d probably best play along for now – she doesn’t know that we are aware of her ulterior motives, and as long as that remains the case, you have a chance.
She sighed. “Look, I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, but I really doubt I can out-scheme some sort of immortal psychic ghost lady from the moon.”
Even if you don’t believe it, I do. You’ve made it this far, and you are stronger than you know. You have the potential to save us all.
Michelle leaned back against the wall of her cell.
“No pressure,” she murmured to herself.
“This meeting shall now be called to order!” bawled the usher, and the chamber began to settle down.
The throne room of King Rudolf’s castle – mostly repaired of its war damage, although one corner of the rear wall was still shored up by a mountain of timber -- was more full of important people than any time Michelle could remember. (And when did I get used to hanging out in throne rooms, anyway? she wondered.) Some of the people here she knew: there was King Rudolf on his throne, of course, his secretary Jinna industriously recording the proceedings, and standing nearby War Minister Vembert and a medium-height, well-dressed, dusky-skinned man with long curls of black hair she had been introduced to earlier as Shulz, the Foreign Minister. Marigold and Ray were seated next to Michelle, the sorceress relaxing insouciantly and putting her long legs up on the chair in front of her. Lady Xiang and her senior guards, all in their elaborate ceremonial uniforms complete with shako caps, sat in a gallery near the King.
On the other side of the room was a group of strangers. They were equally mixed between civilian and military and one in particular stood out, a tall, almost cadaverously thin man with carefully combed thinning hair, wearing a suit that looked decades out of style. He sat slightly apart from his colleagues, an unpleasant frown on his face. Occasionally he cast a disapproving glance over in Marigold’s direction.
“Do you know who that guy looking at you is?” Michelle whispered to Marigold.
“Who? Sourpuss over there? Never seen him before in my life.” The next time he looked towards them, Marigold put her thumbs in her ears, waggled her fingers, and stuck her tongue out at him. The man gave her what was, if anything, an even more hostile look in return before turning firmly away.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said King Rudolf II, “may I extend our gratitude for your presence today. We shall be discussing the planned expedition to the New Territories. Minister Shulz, if you will begin?”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Shulz’s voice was calm and mellifluous. “As you will all recall, two weeks ago the Kingdom of Archimedea suffered a cowardly sneak attack. The combined military forces of the League invaded by land, sea, and air, attempting to capture the capital and very nearly succeeding. But for the grace of God, the heroism of our army and navy, and the timely assistance of a sorceress –” he nodded to Marigold, who preened – “we would have fallen. However. We prevailed.”
He gazed out over the assembled notables. “Victory has a thousand fathers, as they say, but defeat is an orphan. In the days after the cease-fire was signed, numerous splits erupted within the League, and certain old enemies have become remarkably forthcoming with information. You will recall that since our acquisition of the New Territories, the League has repeatedly demanded shared administration of the territory. We are now aware that this demand came to us courtesy of the Trimarine Republic.”
Muttering broke out in the audience.
“Who are the Trimarine Republic again?” Michelle asked Ray quietly.
“They’re those jerks south of us who control the big islands and tax trade which goes through the Great Sea,” Ray answered. “We haven’t gotten along too well since they had a revolution a couple years back and changed from an Empire into a Republic. Lot of ugly stories about that place now.”
“If I may, ladies and gentlemen.” Shulz’s voice cut through the chatter, and the chamber became quiet again. “The sneak attack itself was also organized by the Trimarine, with generous loans of armor and sea power to the League nations. We have learned that, had it succeeded, they would have selflessly turned administration of Archimedea over to our various rivals in the League and taken the New Territories for themselves.”
Michelle remembered Marigold mentioning that she had received a message promising her control of the city. She turned and opened her mouth to ask about it, but the sorceress had tuned out of the proceedings completely and was now gazing vacantly out a window. Oh well. I bet if the Trimarine promised the city to everyone in sight there’d be a fine little fight here while they went after whatever their real goal was.
“Of course, history took a different path,” Shulz continued. “But one thing is clear. The Trimarine want the New Territories. The question is why? I would like to turn the proceedings over to Doctor of Philosophy Aurcturo Leng, senior lecturer in pre-Ice Age history at the Royal College.”
To Michelle’s slight surprise, the cadaverous man who had been glaring at Marigold stood stiffly and walked up to the front of the room, where a lectern and a map had already been set up. He picked up a stick in his hand and gestured to the map.
“The New Territories,” said Doctor Leng, “or ‘Memnon’ as its former owners called it, refers to a strip of land recently ceded to us by the Akavians. It extends north a great distance into the interior of our continent. All the way to the pole, technically.” His voice was sharp and stern, clearly honed from decades of angrily calling out inattentive students in lecture halls. “Commonly dismissed as a frozen wasteland, which indeed it is. But we do have a clue as to what might have made the Trimarine so interested in it.”
He crouched down and picked up something from behind the lectern. Michelle’s heart skipped a beat as she recognized the book that she and Lady Xiang had been looking at when the Archives were invaded. The cover was still stained brown with Lady Xiang’s blood. Michelle glanced over at the beast-woman; she met Michelle’s eyes, but her expression was unreadable.
Leng placed the book on the map stand and opened it. Michelle recognized the sketch of the Ancient Flying Castle, only slightly marred by a hole from the bullet that had almost killed her.
“This book was compiled nearly eight hundred years ago, and in turn includes a replica of a sketch supposedly dating to two thousand years before that. It depicts a castle on a floating island seen drifting southwards after the glaciers of the interior began to retreat, causing the flooding and destruction of Ca’raa. A castle which, in legend, roamed the lands and seas from one ancient nation to the next, sometimes used as a weapon, sometimes as a capital, constantly built and rebuilt, but always bringing ill-fortune and misery wherever it went, until finally the engineers of Xhuec managed in one long, terrifying, storm-torn night to chain it to the ground to prevent it from causing any more trouble. And there it stayed, until…”
“Marigold the Sorceress!” he snapped, and slammed the stick against the lectern.
Marigold jumped. “What? Hello? Yes?”
“Until you set the castle loose again!”
“Well, technically it wasn’t my fault, there were these heroes who –”
“And would it kill you to pay attention to these proceedings?”
“Probably not, but why take chances?” Marigold put a grin on her face and flashed it around the room to see if anyone appreciated it. Her expression faded as she totaled up the results.
She sighed and leaned forward. “All right. What are you getting at?”
“What I am getting at,” he said, “is that the Ancient Flying Castle was not wandering randomly. After hundreds of years of captivity, it was coming home.”
You have done well, Michelle. You brought the castle to where it needed to be...
“As for the nature of that home… there is a story,” Doctor Leng said. “A story that goes back even farther than the tales in this book, to eight thousand years ago. An era when mankind was reduced to near extinction, a population in the mere thousands assembled into tiny warring tribes at the equator, fighting over the patches of land that were not lost under the glaciers. The story goes that a hero of prehistory, a great tribesman, found a magical conveyance exposed by the receding of the ocean. Boarding it, the conveyance carried him to Heaven, from whence he looked down and saw all the lands of the world, buried in miles of ice from pole to pole. But when he looked north, he saw an immense black city amidst the glittering ice, surrounded by clouds.”
Now, the professor had everyone’s attention. The room was absolutely silent.
“The great hero named the black city, Mist of Morning. It was considered nothing more than a myth, until a piece of that city crashed into us a month ago! Yes, I believe that the Ancient Flying Castle is a tiny portion of the black city, broken free and set to wandering by the retreat of the glaciers. But the rest of Mist of Morning must still be out there, in the ice desert of Low Memnon. That is the Trimarines’ goal: a city of magic that predates the Ice Age, a source of unimaginable ancient power and knowledge.”
His eyes blazed.
“We must get there first.”
Pandemonium erupted in the chamber.
* * * *
Once things had settled down, War Minister Vembert stepped forward, all business. “Dr. Leng,” said Vembert, “will be the civilian leader of the expedition, while Lady Xiang will act as military advisor and representative of the King. Marigold the Sorceress,” he nodded in her direction, “as our… trusted ally, you are of course welcome to join us.”
“The chance to seize control of an ancient city of unsurpassed magical power?” Marigold purred, once again the picture of relaxation as she stretched out in her chair. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Dr. Leng looked like he had just bitten into a lemon. Lady Xiang looked exactly the same.
At least we don’t have to worry about the civilians and the military not getting along with Marigold around to antagonize them both, Michelle thought.
She glanced over at the sorceress and took a deep breath. The sword had recommended that she play along, but… I have to try. “Marigold,” she said, “I’m probably not going to be much use on this trip. If you’d like me to stay behind and keep an eye on the Ancient Flying Castle and the orcs, I’m more than happy to –”
“Nonsense, assistant!” Marigold threw a friendly arm around Michelle. “I wouldn’t dream of denying you this adventure. You’ve earned it through your hard work and dedication, and I won’t hear otherwise.”
“Thanks, Marigold,” said Michelle glumly.
“Can I come too?” Ray piped up.
Marigold looked over at Ray as if this was the first time she had ever seen him. “What? Um, sure, why not. The more the merrier.”
“In fact,” said a new voice, “we were going to ask you along ourselves.”
Michelle looked over into the far gallery, where a tall, dark-skinned man with his black hair cut military-short was sitting. He wore a well-tailored blue dress uniform, with gold piping and three medals on his chest.
“The expedition will be taking our most advanced ship,” Vembert said, “the flying submarine Aquila. Captain Timons, whose daring torpedo attack on the Trimarine dreadnaught Citizen Le Bas marked the turning point in the recent battle, will be its commander.”
Timons nodded calmly. “We were grateful to get our boat back,” he said. His voice was deep and rolling and made Michelle want to sit up straight and salute. “But the Aquila was seized straight from its construction docks nearly a year ago, and it turns out that the ones who stole it have far more experience operating it on long-term voyages than we do ourselves.”
Ray looked uncomfortable. “Um, I’m not really a technical guy –”
“There is no need,” Lady Xiang cut in, “to fear for your freedom, Ray Vincent. In exchange for your assistance, we have been… convinced –” here, she glanced over at the King – “to drop all outstanding charges against you.”
“Oh, well, put it that way, how can I refuse?” Ray said brightly.
“Excellent choice!” Timons said. “Especially since we haven’t been able to locate any other former members of your merry band.”
“What a shame,” said Ray.
“Other than Mr. Cayce Kerrigan, of course, who will be our chief engineer.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Ray.
“No backsies, minion!” chirped Marigold.
“You shall have one additional passenger,” King Rudolf interrupted. He turned to his secretary. “Jinna, I am inclined to grant your request. Will you go with them, please? You shall record this expedition for posterity.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” said the mousy woman, ducking her head obediently. Her voice was quiet, but surprisingly firm. “Thank you very much.”
“Then we are settled.” The King stood. “Your immediate and most important goal in this expedition is the security of our nation. But let us not forget that Mist of Morning is far more than a crass strategic objective. Our world is ancient and strange and old, and filled with secrets; we who walk upon it are the inheritors of a legacy vaster than we can comprehend. Mist of Morning is a symbol of what mankind once was. Should you find it, we shall treat it with the appropriate reverence in the hope that one day, man may reach those heights again.”
While the assembled notables applauded, Michelle thought about Reve up there in the stars with her unknowable plans, and wondered if such a thing would ever be allowed to happen. All of a sudden, she felt very cold.
The first part of the expedition would almost have been a vacation, if it hadn’t been for the cramped accommodations and military food. The Aquila cruised north at a moderate speed, about a thousand feet over the farms and small towns in the hinterlands of Archimedea. They had left port on the first day of winter, and the fields far below were largely cleared and dusted with occasional snow, the more so the farther north they went. After a while the houses and towns grew farther and farther apart, replaced by rolling evergreen forests dotted with the occasional tiny shack or hunter’s camp and split by icy, violent rivers of glacial melt that ran through deep ravines. The snowpack was solid down there now, and soon would be permanent.
On the seventh day of the journey, Dr. Leng called a briefing for the leaders of the expedition in the Aquila’s mess room, the largest space aboard the ship. That wasn’t saying much, though – the metal ceiling was low and the walls cluttered with equipment and storage lockers. Besides Marigold and Michelle, Lady Xiang was there along with several members of Leng’s scientific team and one or two of the ship’s officers. Jinna was present as well, industriously recording the proceedings on the small mechanical keyboard she seemed to carry with her everywhere she went.
“Captain Timons has notified me that we will be crossing the border into the New Territories later today,” Leng said. Lecturing as always, Michelle thought. I wonder if he’s even capable of speaking in any other way. “This region is poorly surveyed and the Akavians did not keep accurate records, so we will be entering largely unmapped territory. Accordingly, we will ascend to high altitude and proceed on a zig-zagging course across the region. To find the city we shall establish a program of…”
Leng’s voice stumbled for just a moment. Michelle glanced over at Marigold and then did a horrified double-take. The sorceress was leaning far back in her chair, gazing directly at Dr. Leng and casually crossing and uncrossing her long legs.
“…of c-constant ground observation,” Leng resumed, although there was an angry, flustered note to his voice now. “Mist of Morning should be large enough to easily sight with the naked eye, even from miles up, and the ice desert conditions will afford excellent visibility. I have every confidence that if the city is anywhere within our range we shall find it.” With that, he turned the proceedings over to one of the other academics and stormed back to his seat, favoring Marigold with a look of death along the way.
After a few more words on the search plan, the meeting broke up. Michelle stood to follow Marigold out and instead saw her make a beeline to Dr. Leng, who was organizing his notes at one of the mess tables. The sorceress threw her arms around him, making him jump.
“Oh, Professor!” Marigold caroled, squeezing against him. “I know I didn’t do any of the homework and failed all of the exams, but isn’t there anything I can do to get a passing grade? Anything at all?”
“Let go of me!” Leng snapped, twisting out of her grip. “Your attitude is indefensible, Marigold. Bringing you along on this expedition was a terrible mistake.”
Marigold affected a shocked look. “That hurts, Dr. Leng. That hurts me on the inside.”
“The truth often hurts.”
Marigold paused. “All right. Look. Cards on the table, I’ll agree I haven’t exactly been on my best behavior here. But you were upset with me before you ever met me. What gives?”
“I am upset with you,” said Leng stiffly, “because you came into possession of an irreplaceable piece of our history. The Ancient Flying Castle, a fragment of a city that was lost so long ago that the very stars in the sky were different when it was built. And what did you do with it?”
“Uh… take excellent care of…?”
“You took it on a joyride around the Great Sea and wrecked it!” Leng snarled. “You have no respect for anything, least of all the priceless legacy of mankind. That, not your childish behavior, is why you belong nowhere near this expedition, Marigold the Sorceress.”
He stomped out.
Marigold stared after his departing figure, looking genuinely stricken.
“Joyride? I wouldn’t have put it quite like that,” she said plaintively before noticing Michelle looking at her. “What? Come on, out with it.”
Michelle sighed. “You were kind of pushing it with him,” she said. “This is a small ship and we’re all going to be stuck here for a while, so maybe you should tone it down a little?”
“Oh, please, not you too, assistant. You sound like my mother.”
Everything Michelle had been about to say piled up in her head at this, leaving her stunned.
The words “You have a mother?” escaped from her mouth.
The sorceress put a hand to her head. “Well, that was a mistake. Forget I said anything.”
The very concept of Marigold having relatives of any sort was difficult to comprehend. Michelle tried to picture the sorceress sitting around a dinner table with brothers and sisters and her mind went blank. She couldn’t stop herself. “Do you have a whole family hidden away somewhere? You’ve never even said anything about them, what are they like? How did they –”
Marigold’s voice was suddenly very cold. “I meant it, assistant. Be silent.”
Michelle closed her mouth.
“Much better. Why don’t you keep doing that for a while.”
The sorceress stalked out of the room. Michelle turned her head to notice that the compartment wasn’t empty. Lady Xiang was still present, leaning against the wall.
“I’m with Leng, for what it’s worth,” the beast-woman said. “We shouldn’t have brought her. I don’t trust that sorceress.”
Michelle found herself with an odd urge to push back. “Look, I’m not defending her behavior,” or what she says, or the way she dresses, or anything else about her whatsoever, “but she did save your life.”
“Yes, I know.” Lady Xiang looked uncharacteristically uncertain. “And that’s the part that I don’t understand. What’s her angle?”
“Marigold doesn’t do angles. She’s just…”
Michelle grasped helplessly for the right words.
“She’s just Marigold, right?”
“Well, that fills me with reassurance,” said Lady Xiang.
* * * *
Early that evening, Michelle saw something odd.
She had emerged from the head and seen a figure moving through a cross-corridor. She recognized Jinna, the King’s secretary, and opened her mouth to say hello, but hesitated.
Jinna was moving carefully, cautiously, pausing at open hatches, glancing through before hurrying past them. She wasn’t carrying her keyboard with her.
What is she doing?
Uneasily, Michelle followed her.
The route took them to the aft part of the ship and a steep gangway that led down into the engine compartment. With one final look around, Jinna scurried down the steps.
If she’s up to something…
Was there any reason not to trust the King’s secretary? Well… was there any reason to trust her? Michelle barely knew the woman, and she had been added to the expedition at the last moment. And at her own request, from what the King had said…
Coming to a decision, Michelle hurried to the gangway and quietly stepped downwards.
The engine compartment’s corridors were, if anything, narrower than the ones upstairs, lined with pipes and wheels and meters in vast profusion. She briefly feared making too much noise, but the constant whirring and roaring of the machinery that kept the Aquila in the air against all logic and reason was substantially louder here. There was no sign of Jinna.
Rounding a corner, Michelle saw a hatch leading into one of the control rooms. It was open just a crack. Beyond it she could hear voices, although she couldn’t make them out over the racket of the engines.
She tiptoed to the narrow opening and peered through it.
Her eyes widened.
Kerrigan, former member of Ray Vincent’s troupe of heroes and current chief engineer of the Aquila, was sitting in the control room, and Jinna, the King’s tiny, mousy, quiet secretary, was sitting in his lap. Their arms were around each other and their heads were close together as they talked.
“I still wonder if it was a good idea to leave Eiko behind,” the musclebound chief engineer was saying.
“Her brothers are old enough to take care of her,” Jinna answered.
“I don’t know. It’s only three against one. I think she may have them outnumbered.”
“Then it’ll be a useful object lesson for the boys. Besides, I’m not letting you out of my sight on this ship again after what happened last time, and that’s final.”
“I did apologize,” Kerrigan sighed. “Very sincerely and repeatedly.”
“Yes, and you’re going to have to keep doing that for a while, dear.”
Oh my god. Jinna’s his wife?
Michelle belatedly realized that she had been staring, and quickly turned to go. Unfortunately, in the process she caught her foot against the hatchway, knocking the hatch fully open and sending her sprawling to the floor.
Wincing in pain, she twisted around to see Jinna and Kerrigan both staring at her.
“The sorceress’s assistant?” Jinna said. “What are you doing there? Were you following me?”
“No! I mean yes, I mean -- I’m really sorry!” Michelle blushed crimson. “I just saw you sneaking around and I thought you might be, I don’t know, a spy or… something… I’ve been worrying a lot for various reasons and I guess… I’m sorry,” she repeated, as she scrambled to her feet.
“Yes, I was sneaking around so I could get away from those tedious academics and military men and spend some time with my husband. It’s a thing that couples do.”
“I’m sorry,” Michelle said again.
“It’s fine. In the future just leave the paranoia to that beast-lady the King is always mooning after,” advised Jinna. “It’s her job and she’s better at it.”
Michelle unexpectedly laughed. “Her and the King… you… you noticed too, huh?”
Jinna rolled her eyes. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be disrespectful, but I’ve been following the man around for fifteen years recording his every belch and he isn’t as good at keeping his feelings secret as he thinks. You know, I love the King, we all do, but really, he’s not getting any younger. It’s about time we start getting some little princes and princesses around the castle, and I don’t particularly care if they have ears on the top of their heads or not.”
“Since you’re here,” Kerrigan interjected, “Eiko was asking after you, Michelle.”
“She was?” Michelle said in surprise.
“Yes. She talks about you all the time, in fact. She doesn’t want to be a singer anymore and instead she wants us to get her a sword just like yours. You really made an impression on her.”
“Wow. Well, Eiko is…” a menace to society who gave me two concussions, “a good kid,” Michelle finished, silently congratulating herself on the save.
“We’ll tell her you said that. Don’t be surprised if she insists on visiting you one of these days.”
“Um. Speaking of that whole… scene,” Michelle said uncertainly, “are you still angry with Ray?”
“For conning me with that ridiculous story, separating me from my wife, tarring me as a criminal, and dragging my daughter and I all around creation for no reason, you mean?” Kerrigan said, his visage darkening. “Yes, I am.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, um. He’s kind of changed, you know. I mean, he’s still an idiot, but he’s trying to become a better person. He’s turned into a pretty diligent guy, actually.” Why am I telling them this? she wondered.
“Good for him. You let him know that he should be diligent out of my sight if he values having all his teeth,” Kerrigan said with finality. “Now on that note, don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“Namely, not here,” Jinna added.
“Oh! Right,” Michelle said, and gratefully fled the room.
She was wandering the corridors of the ship, mind still whirling, when she ran into a familiar figure pushing a mop.
“Hey, Michelle,” said Ray Vincent.
Speak of the devil. “Ray? What are you doing?”
“Oh, this?” He held up the mop. “Well, they eventually realized I wasn’t kidding about not being a technical guy, so… yeah. At least I’m using my work experience now, right?”
Michelle paused. “Do you want to take a break?”
* * * *
She led him to a tiny hatch in the rear of the ship and pushed it open. Chilly air blew in.
“You’re not going to fling me off the submarine, are you?” Ray asked, a little worried.
“No, I’m not going to fling you off the submarine. I just thought you might like this.”
The hatch led to the outside of the Aquila, a little fenced-in platform on the rear of the ship. The night air was cold and clear, the eternal yellow disc of the Moon accompanied by the Second Moon halfway up the sky both surrounded by ice halos, but there was enough ambient heat from the ship’s engines to make the temperature, if not comfortable, at least bearable. Between them the moons washed out nearly all of the stars, except for one brilliant one that sat just on the horizon. Below there was nothing but the endless snowy forests of the New Territories, receding forever in every direction.
“I found this place a couple of days into the trip,” Michelle said, sitting down on the platform and dangling her legs over the edge. “I like coming here to get away from everyone else.”
“I guess it would get the job done,” Ray said, cautiously sitting next to her.
“Did you know that Jinna and Kerrigan are married? They have, like, a million kids.”
Ray seemed surprised by her choice of subject. “Well, yeah, of course I did. Didn’t you?”
Michelle didn’t answer for a moment.
“This probably sounds really dumb, but all these people with us on this trip. They’re a lot more complicated than you’d think, aren’t they? I, uh…” She fumbled a bit. “I had a weird childhood. So I have trouble with that, you know? Understanding that other people are, well. Real.”
“I haven’t got the faintest idea what you’re talking about,” said Ray.
She gritted her teeth. “Look, what I’m getting at, you idiot, is… Sorry. I’m sorry. Look, I have a bad habit of just putting people in boxes and that’s the end of it. Not realizing that they can be complicated, that they have their own reasons, that they can change.” She couldn’t look at him. “I did that to you, Ray. And I wanted to apologize.”
“Oh.” He was silent for a while. “Um… Y’know. No big deal. But… thanks.”
She glanced at him, but he seemed to be having a hard time meeting her eyes too.
“Do you think Marigold is one of those complicated people?” Ray said eventually.
“Marigold?” Michelle thought about it. “I think she wants everyone to believe she isn’t. She wants them to think of her as a force of nature instead. She had me fooled, too. But yeah, she is. Just as much as anyone else.”
They sat in the moonlight for a while.
“Michelle, I have to tell you something very important,” Ray said.
Her heart stopped for a moment. “What is it?”
“I am freezing my butt off out here.”
The two of them got up and went back into the ship.
A while later, the single star low on the horizon behind them dimmed and faded back into the night.
* * * *
The bridge of the Trimarine airship Grand Guignol was dimly lit and quiet. Officers went about their duties virtually without saying a word, constantly glancing with unease towards the elevated prow of the bridge, where three men stood. A single star glowed on the evening horizon ahead of them.
“This waiting is tiresome, Captain. We should launch the attack immediately,” said one of them. He drummed his carefully manicured fingers impatiently against the cold tempered-glass window. “Who knows what they’re scheming in that ridiculous flying relic of theirs?”
“You know perfectly well that this isn’t the time, Goujon,” responded the second man in his low, rough voice. “It’s up to them when we act. When they reach the Exclusion Line, we’ll have the upper hand.” He turned to the third, who had so far been silent. “May we assume there will be no more of your recalcitrance when the moment for action arrives, Dessolin? You’ve heard the consequences for noncompliance my friend here has laid out,” he gave Goujon an unreadable look, “in such exacting detail. Will you cooperate?”
The third man twitched. He was tall, and narrow, and not especially handsome as these things go. He wore a simple robe and his hair and beard had been carefully trimmed at one point, but were now long and unkempt. The expression on his face was bitter.
“I’ll cooperate,” said Dessolin the Sorcerer.
His eyes glowed, just for a moment.
Two weeks went by with no sign of an ancient magical city from when the stars were young.
Morale on the ship was starting to wear thin as the endless snowy wastes drifted by far below. Michelle had begun to dread the daily briefings, when the academics in charge of the observation program would show up and say that there was nothing yet to report. Leng still insisted that they would find the prize, but the ship’s officers were starting to talk about dwindling supplies and at what point they would need to turn around and go home.
The only bit of good news lately, as far as keeping a lid on tempers went, was that Marigold had abruptly stopped coming to the various meetings, where she had mostly spent her time needling Dr. Leng instead of paying attention to what was going on. However, this just made Michelle worry more.
“Assistant,” the sorceress had said a few days ago, “as far as all the expedition bureaucracy goes, I want you to take my place. All those tedious meetings bore me, and I shan’t be attending any more of them.”
Her tone of voice was the same. Her superior, dismissive attitude was the same. But something was off about her.
Marigold had then vanished into her compartment and locked the door, and Michelle hadn’t seen her since. Neither had anyone else on the ship, when she had quietly asked around. Food had been delivered to the cabin door and empty trays taken away, so she probably wasn’t dead, but that was as far as it went.
The latest briefing – no hint of the city, as usual – broke up to a chorus of general grumbling. Michelle got up to go as well, but Dr. Leng intercepted her.
“Michelle,” he said brusquely.
“Ah… yes, sir?”
“I can’t help but notice that the sorceress hasn’t been attending these briefings lately.”
“O-oh, right. She, um…” Michelle tried to think of a way to say “she said your meetings were really dull” without sounding rude.
“Is she ill?”
“What? No. I mean… well, maybe?” Maybe she was sick? Though Michelle couldn’t remember that ever happening before.
“It will be a risk to this expedition if we have to bring her up to speed in an emergency. Have you been keeping her informed of our progress?”
Does knocking on Marigold’s compartment door and not getting any response count as keeping her informed? Michelle wondered.
“Yes, I have,” she said.
“Good,” said Leng. “Please let me know if her condition improves.”
He walked out of the room, leaving Michelle baffled. I thought Dr. Leng would be happy she was gone. What’s going on around this ship?
A moment later, the whole vessel rocked sharply backwards. Michelle was flung forward and almost cracked her skull on one of the tables welded to the mess deck. Loose objects crashed to the ground all around her and she heard some impressive cursing from the kitchens.
As she pulled herself to her feet, the general quarters bell began to ring. Michelle dived out of the way again just in time as half a dozen burly sailors ran out of the kitchen, heading for their combat positions.
I’m not going to be useless here. Squaring her shoulders, she headed out as well.
* * * *
One brief stop at her compartment to get her sword later, Michelle was climbing the trembling and shaking gangway to the bridge of the Aquila. She wasn’t entirely sure that she would have anything to contribute there, but this was kind of, sort of a meeting, right? At any rate, she wanted to know what was happening.
“This isn’t working. All stop!” she heard Captain Timons say as she ascended into the narrow space.
“All stop, aye!” answered one of the officers, pulling a lever hard over. After several seconds, the trembling subsided and the ship was still.
The bridge was wide but shallow, located as it was in the conning tower of the Aquila, and crowded with instruments, control panels, and worried naval officers. Timons stood forward gazing out the low windows at the horizon, where in defiance of Dr. Leng’s optimistic weather predictions heavy clouds were rolling in all around. The captain glanced back briefly to see Michelle climbing into the bridge, but took no other notice of her presence.
Looking around for a friendly face, Michelle noticed Lady Xiang, standing towards the back of the bridge. Well, maybe not friendly, but at least familiar. Michelle slipped in next to her.
“What’s going on?” she whispered.
“We don’t know yet,” Lady Xiang said. “The ship’s not moving, no matter what they try. We’re just stuck in the middle of the air.”
“Is that normal? I don’t know how these things work…”
“Nobody knows how these things work,” the other woman said quietly. “The Aquila is able to fly because it was rebuilt around an ancient mana engine found in an archaeological dig. That’s as far as it goes.”
“So what do we do if we can’t get out of here?”
“That’s an excellent question.”
“I see something, sir,” said an ensign who had been scanning the horizon with binoculars. He handed them to Timons, who peered through them and then was silent for long seconds.
“Michelle,” he finally said, “excellent timing on your arrival. Could you take a look at this, please?”
“Yes, you.” He held out the binoculars.
Uncertainly, she walked up, took them, and started squinting through the eyepieces at the night sky. “What am I looking for?”
“I wouldn’t dream of prejudicing you. Just check directly forward.”
“I don’t… what is that?”
There was a man floating in the sky in front of their ship, silhouetted against the thickening clouds. His hands were stretched out to either side, his eyes glowed, and he was staring directly at the Aquila. It was hard to make out details in the low light, but he had some sort of massive shape on his back.
“What do you think it is?” said Timons.
“P… probably a sorcerer,” Michelle said.
Timons shook his head. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
“Incoming radio signal!” said the communications officer. “Patching it through.”
For a few moments, static echoed around the bridge. Then a new voice spoke. It was deep, rough, dangerous.
“Attention, Archimedean ship. This is the Trimarine cruiser Grand Guignol, Captain Markonic speaking. You have trespassed into territory claimed by the Trimarine Republic.”
“Look,” Michelle gasped, pointing to the right side of the window.
A long, sleek metal form was drifting into view. One and a half times the size of the Aquila, painted dark blue, and with no sign it had been built for any other purpose: a true airship. The Grand Guignol bristled with guns, and it swiveled a spotlight to point directly into the bridge, forcing the assembled officers to shield their eyes.
“Please respond, Aquila,” Markonic’s voice continued lazily. “I’d hate to have to take measures that you will regret. Over.”
Captain Timons stepped forward and picked up a microphone.
“Grand Guignol, this is the Archimedean submarine Aquila. There appears to be some sort of misunderstanding. The New Territories are a possession of Archimedea, and we will defend them… as we demonstrated when we cracked that dreadnaught of yours in half a few months ago. Over.”
“Yes, that was well played, Aquila,” responded Markonic. “Is this Timons? Excellent maneuvering, Captain. I was very impressed. Unfortunately, you’re out of your element up here, in more ways than one. You may have noticed that we have a sorcerer with us. At a single instruction from me, he will tear your ship in half and that will be the end of it. So perhaps a little humility is called for, hmm? Over.”
Timons gritted his teeth.
“Michelle,” he said quietly. “Where is Marigold?”
“She’s, uh… she’s in her cabin, I think?” Michelle said.
“Could you go and politely request her assistance? I’ll try to stall Markonic.”
“Y-yes, sir. Right away.” She fairly dove down the gangway out of the bridge and was surprised to see Lady Xiang coming down behind her.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“Escorting you,” said Lady Xiang. “If Markonic hasn’t already had us destroyed he’s got something in mind. He’s probably going to try to board us.” She gave Michelle a searching look as they hurried down the metal corridor. “You’re sure that was a sorcerer?”
“Well, it was a guy floating in the air, keeping us from moving. So I think probably, yeah? …I wonder what that thing on his back was, though.”
“How could Markonic be controlling him? I know perfectly well that Marigold does what she pleases.”
“I don’t know. But you’re right, it doesn’t make sense. Maybe he’s a loyal revolutionary or whatever?”
“Maybe.” Lady Xiang looked doubtful, though. “But sorcerous involvement in politics is extremely rare. They almost always just hide out in their castles and never talk to anyone. Marigold is very much an exception.”
“I have no idea, then. Here we are.” Marigold’s cabin was identifiable by the empty tray sitting outside it, covered in dirty dishes.
Michelle pounded on the hatch. “Marigold! Are you in there?”
There was no response from within.
“Marigold, there’s a Trimarine cruiser out there and they’ve got their own sorcerer. That’s why the ship can’t move. We need your help or they’re going to capture us!”
Nothing. Michelle stared helplessly at the hatch, then grabbed the handle and tried to turn it. It didn’t budge.
“We don’t have time for this,” Lady Xiang said. She stepped forward, gripped the handle with both hands and pushed it upwards, hard. The metal creaked, resisted, and then abruptly there was a loud crack from inside the lock and the hatch swung open.
Michelle stared in shock.
Marigold the Sorceress was crouched on the bunk at the side of the small, dark compartment. The dramatic cape she usually favored was wrapped around her like a shroud. Her eyes looked bleak, dark rings under them, and her hair was pathetically tangled.
“Must you make such a racket, assistant?” Marigold said, tiredly. “Some of us are trying to rest.”
She actually is sick, was Michelle’s first thought. She’d never seen the sorceress in such a condition before.
“We need you, Marigold,” said Lady Xiang. “The ship is in grave danger.”
Marigold looked up. “Oh, you brought the beast-lady. That’s nice. In danger, you say? And what do you expect me to do about it?”
“I know better than to expect anything from a sorceress,” said Lady Xiang. “But may I appeal to your self-interest? You seemed very keen on seizing this city we’re looking for, yes? That’s unlikely to happen if the Trimarine capture us.”
“Too bad for you,” said Marigold. “I changed my mind. I don’t want your dumb magical city anyway.”
Michelle stepped into the cabin. “Marigold, what’s wrong? This isn’t like you.”
“No,” Marigold said. “No, it’s not. Would you like to know exactly how much this isn’t like me?”
She stretched out her hand – the sorceress wasn’t wearing her usual black leather elbow-length gloves, Michelle noticed – and snapped her fingers.
“You… you can’t do magic?” Michelle said, horrified.
“Oh no, my terrible secret is out,” Marigold said. “How will I ever show my face again? Yes, assistant, I can’t do magic. I stopped being able to do magic three days ago. Which is to say, I am now of little use to anyone, endangered or otherwise. You’re on your own.”
“How did this happen? Isn’t there something we can --”
“Do I look like I know how this happened?” flared the sorceress. “And would I be sitting here in the dark feeling sorry for myself if there was anything I could do about it? No. No, I would not. Now unless you have any more foolish questions you need answered, please leave me alone.”
Michelle felt a hand on her shoulder.
“If she can’t help us,” said Lady Xiang, “we’ll have to figure this out ourselves. Let’s go.”
Michelle swallowed. She nodded and started to back out of the room.
“Assistant,” said Marigold.
“I’m not going to apologize for leaving you in the lurch like this.”
“Um,” said Michelle, “…okay?”
The sorceress looked up at Michelle. For just a moment, there was a ghost of her old self in her eyes. “Because I have every confidence that you will resolve the situation with your usual élan and a minimum of screaming. Now get out of here.”
* * * *
“I don’t believe it,” said Michelle after they had left the compartment and closed the broken hatch as best they could. “How can she be… I’ve never seen her like this.” It felt like the entire world had tilted underneath her. She looked up at Lady Xiang. “What could do this? An anti-magic shell?”
Lady Xiang frowned. “Unlikely. Those disrupt magic for seconds, not days. And if someone had been firing off artillery in the ship we probably would have noticed.”
“Not to mention that nobody knows how to build them. Every bit of anti-magic ordnance in existence, and there aren’t many, was found deep in the ground. I believe Kerrigan got in more trouble for wasting one of those shells than he did for helping Ray to steal this boat.” She shook her head. “I don’t know of anything which could cause such a long-lasting effect. Maybe Dr. Leng would have some ideas.”
The ship rocked hard to one side, and a metallic crash and tearing of metal erupted from somewhere farther forward. A new bell began to sound in the corridor, a louder, deeper one.
“What is that?” Michelle said.
Lady Xiang’s hands went to the pistol and sword at her hips. “That’s the boarding alarm.”
Footsteps began to echo down the corridor, getting nearer. The beast-woman drew her pistol and nearly fired it into the stomach of one of the Aquila’s ratings as he rounded the corner.
“Don’t shoot, ma’am!” gasped the young man. Michelle didn’t think he was more than a few years older than she was. “Friendly!”
“My apologies, sailor,” Lady Xiang said, lowering her pistol. “What’s going on?”
“Captain’s compliments,” he answered, catching his breath, “and he wished to know quote what the hell is taking them so long with the sorceress unquote.”
Lady Xiang shook her head. “Marigold can’t help us.”
“What?” The man looked shocked. “Why not? What did we do wrong?”
Marigold is popular, isn’t she? Michelle thought, reading the dismayed expression on the sailor’s face when told their savior might not be coming. And not because of her skimpy outfits, or not just that at least. They really do love her.
Lady Xiang sighed. “Can’t help, not won’t. Though who knows with her? We’re going to have to take care of this ourselves.”
The sailor shook his head. “I hope she’s not angry with us for some reason…”
“Focus, man!” said Lady Xiang sharply. “Now, how would the Trimarine be boarding us in the middle of the sky?”
“Sorry, ma’am!” The young sailor snapped to attention again. “I understand that the Grand Guignol is equipped with a chained boarding pod.”
The crackle of gunfire began to echo from far forward. The sailor glanced at Lady Xiang, who nodded. He unlimbered the rifle he was carrying.
“What’s a chained boarding pod?” Michelle asked Lady Xiang.
“Just what it sounds like. They use an explosive charge to fire it out of their own ship and into ours. There’s a long chain attached to it so they can theoretically pull it back and retrieve their men. Although the way the Trimarine operate, I doubt there’ll be any retreat. Victory or death, that’s the revolutionary way.”
I should be panicking, she thought. There are a bunch of fanatics inside this ship and a cruiser outside, and there’s nothing we can do to get away as long as that sorcerer is focused on us…
The ghost of an idea was tickling at her mind.
“I don’t think,” she said slowly, “the sorcerer could continue to hold us if the Trimarine needed him to do something else. They’re powerful, but they usually can only do one thing at a time.”
The other woman seemed skeptical. “Perhaps. But how would we arrange for that to happen?”
“Well, if the Grand Guignol was in trouble they’d call him back to help, wouldn’t they? Like, if we got a bomb or something over there?”
Lady Xiang opened her mouth, then paused.
She turned to the sailor. “Go to the engine room, please. Ask Kerrigan to go to the aft torpedo bay and remove one of the warheads. Then both of you meet us at the breach point, wherever it is. And don’t get killed.”
The young man saluted quickly and took off at a sprint.
“What are we going to do?” Michelle asked, although she was already dreading the answer.
“Capture the breach point,” Lady Xiang said. Unexpectedly, the beast-woman smiled her sharp-toothed smile. “Coming up with that idea was a job well done. And you know what the reward for a job well done is in the military, don’t you, Michelle? Another job.”
* * * *
They cautiously made their way forward, but it turned out that the area of the breach wasn’t hard to find. This section of the ship was a mess: nearby lights were shattered, discarded shell casings littered the floor, and then of course there was the huge hole punched through the hull, currently filled by the open nose of a bullet-shaped capsule. Three men in brown outfits with white-and-blue armbands stood guard, clutching bayonets. Michelle noticed that the men were unshaven, their hair long and their uniforms in poor condition. The revolution had been hard on the army, it seemed.
“Good,” said Lady Xiang very quietly, as they peered out of a darkened corridor at the site. “I’d hoped that most of the Trimarine would already be gone from here, trying to capture the bridge.”
“Is it a good thing if they’re trying to capture the bridge?”
“Well, it’s good for us.” She looked at Michelle very seriously. “Are you ready to use that sword?”
“I – what do you mean?”
“Are you ready,” Lady Xiang repeated, “to stick that sword into a person and murder them.”
Michelle gaped at her. Her mouth opened and closed, but no words came out.
“If you aren’t, that’s fine, but I need to know now.”
What do I do? she thought at the sword, panicked.
What you have to do, answered Xanadu. To protect the people who depend on you.
When did people start depending on me? Why would anyone be so foolish?
Michelle squeezed her eyes shut. The world seemed to stop for a moment.
She opened them again.
“I’m ready,” she said.
“All right.” Lady Xiang clapped her on the back. “I’ll go in first. Odds are you won’t even need to do anything. But if you do…”
“I’ll do it.”
All at once, the beast-woman leapt forward, practically a blur. The pistol in her hand moved up and barked twice before the enemy had even noticed her presence. One of the men toppled over.
She moved the pistol again, pulled the trigger and it jammed.
Even as his comrade was still falling the second man rushed forward, bayonet at the ready, while Lady Xiang tossed the pistol aside and drew her sword. Their weapons clanged together. The beast-woman was far stronger and easily drove her opponent back, but the third Trimarine had his rifle raised in shaking hands, pointing directly at her, and began to pull the –
The weapon slid out of his hands and clattered on the floor. He gasped and stared down at his chest. Blood fountained out of his mouth.
He twisted around to stare into Michelle’s eyes and tried to speak. No words came out. He had green eyes, she noticed.
He slid off Michelle’s sword and collapsed to the ground.
Michelle stared, frozen, at what she had just done.
“Those pistols are terrible,” Lady Xiang commented. “Worse than useless. I’ve complained over and over again and nothing ever happens.” The Trimarine she had been fighting was on the ground in front of her, unmoving. “Did you take care of the third one? Well done.”
“I killed him,” Michelle whispered. She was shaking like a leaf.
“Yes, you did.”
Abruptly, Lady Xiang stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Michelle. Her embrace was warm and powerful.
She didn’t say anything as Michelle hiccupped, helpless. Tears threatened to pour from her eyes.
“We’re here, ma’am!” shouted a voice – the rating from earlier.
“Is that Michelle?” said another. Kerrigan. “What happened to her?”
“She’s fine. Give her some space,” Lady Xiang snapped, somewhat contradictorily. “Is the warhead ready?”
“As ready as it’s going to get. They’re not supposed to be removed from the casing at all, so don’t jostle it or we’ll all be very briefly sorry.”
“All right.” She let go of Michelle. “Now I’m just going to be right back, okay?”
Michelle sniffled. “Okay.”
She didn’t look up as there was a series of clattering, scrambling noises, some distant cursing, and then a loud clunk, followed by a deafening wrench of metal, a gust of cold air, and a rattling noise that faded swiftly away.
Several seconds later, a distant boom echoed through the sky.
The Aquila lurched forward, suddenly free. It tilted sharply and dove for the earth.
Michelle felt a strong arm around her shoulders.
“Your plan worked,” Lady Xiang said.
Michelle nodded, but she couldn’t get the Trimarine soldier’s green eyes out of her mind.
“I won’t tell you to forget what you did,” the other woman said. “We all have to live with the consequences of our actions.” She sighed. “You’ll get used to it.”
That’s what I’m afraid of.
The hatch to the cramped, stinking compartment slammed open, allowing light to pour in. Marigold the Sorceress, scourge of humanity, conqueror of Archimedea and future evil ruler of the world, pulled the thin sheet on the military cot tightly over her head.
“Go away, assistant,” she moaned. “Leave me to my pain.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be happening,” said Dr. Aurcturo Leng.
Marigold sat up with a sharp jolt, clutching the sheet around herself, and turned towards the open hatch. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m asking myself the same question, now that I have the chance to see your cabin. This is vile, Marigold.” The tall, cadaverous academic screwed up his nose at the compartment, littered as it was with dirty plates and scattered clothing.
“I’m sorry that my hygiene standards don’t meet with your approval,” said the sorceress.
“Your hygiene standards wouldn’t meet with a pig’s approval.” He picked up an unidentifiable bit of black leather lingerie between thumb and forefinger and then tossed it away in obvious disgust. “Enough self-pity. It’s time for you to get up.”
“I’ll be the judge of when I’ve had enough self-pity. Besides, what are you going to do?” She looked directly at Leng. “Come in here and assault a poor, weak woman who can’t fight back?”
“No. My colleagues will take care of any… manhandling that may be necessary.”
Marigold squinted past him into the corridor. Michelle and Jinna were standing there.
“We can’t let you keep hiding out in here, Marigold,” said Michelle.
“You have no respect for your employer, do you, assistant? You know what? This is the last straw. You’re fired.”
“You can’t fire me, I quit,” Michelle said. She felt oddly energized. “Come on, Jinna, let’s do this.” They advanced into the cabin.
“No!” Marigold said sharply. “Stay back! I absolutely refuse.”
Jinna shook her head. “I’ve raised three boys and one girl, Marigold. Don’t think you can out-childish anything I’ve seen.”
“You’d be surprised how childish she can be when she really tries,” Michelle said.
Marigold scrambled backwards in the bunk, pulling the sheet with her.
“Why are you doing this?” she said. “What good am I with no magic?”
“Most of us manage,” Dr. Leng said shortly. “But I suppose you’d need some sort of incentive before you’d cooperate, wouldn’t you, Marigold the Sorceress? What if I said we could give you back your magic?”
Marigold stared at him. “I’d say that’s absurd and I don’t want to hear it,” she said, but her eyes were hungry.
“You are a terrible liar.” Dr. Leng turned to Michelle and Jinna. “Do you two have this situation under control?”
“I don’t think she’ll give us any trouble,” said Jinna, ignoring the mulish expression Marigold favored her with.
“Fine.” Without saying goodbye, the man stepped out of the cabin and strode swiftly away.
* * * *
The three marched down the corridor towards Engineering: Michelle, Jinna, and between them a somewhat less disheveled Marigold.
The sorceress had complained and whined and struggled continuously while Michelle and Jinna dragged her to the showers and then stuffed her into a spare sailor’s uniform, but to a carefully calibrated extent that was never quite enough to force the two of them to stop. Now she almost looked human, although Michelle still seethed with silent jealousy at how Marigold could fill out even a normally unflattering military outfit; apparently magical powers weren’t required for that part of her sorceress act. Still, Marigold’s normally voluminous and flowing hair hung damp and limp from her head, and the dark circles under her eyes hadn’t gone away. And strikingly, Michelle noticed that without the extravagantly high-heeled boots she usually wore the sorceress wasn’t any taller than she was.
The mana engine chamber was located at the farthest forward part of Engineering, very nearly in the center of the ship. It was packed stem-to-stern with pipes of all sizes and descriptions that lined the walls and ceiling. Every single pipe converged on a metal sphere at the far end of the room that seemed to thrum with power.
Lady Xiang looked over at them from where she was leaning casually against the wall.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” she said. She eyed Jinna. “So, your scheme worked, then?”
“Leng said get up, she got up,” Jinna answered.
Wordlessly, Lady Xiang produced a silver half-crown piece from a pocket and, holding it between her index and middle fingers, slipped it to the other woman.
“What is this all about?” said Marigold, looking at Kerrigan. The brawny chief engineer was standing near the metal sphere.
“We need you, Marigold,” said Kerrigan. “Michelle’s plan helped us escape from the Grand Guignol, but they’re just down, not out. And we can’t stand up against a sorcerer by ourselves; if they find us again, we’re done. So we’re asking for your help.”
“Wait a moment. Your plan fended them off, assistant?” Marigold said, turning to Michelle.
“Well… I had a few suggestions,” Michelle admitted. She tried not to think about green eyes.
“Hmm. As your employer, that does reflect well upon me, doesn’t it. I taught her everything she knows,” Marigold told Kerrigan grandly, a trace of her old affect back for a moment.
Michelle sighed. “Didn’t you just fire me?”
“Who can keep track?” Marigold waved this away and turned back to the others. “So you want my help. That must mean you think I can be helpful again. Do you know why I can’t use magic anymore?”
“We have a theory,” said Lady Xiang. “That Trimarine sorcerer was certainly capable of magic, even though you weren’t. But, that sorcerer was also wearing an enormous backpack which looked like a machine of some sort. Our speculation, therefore, is that we are in some type of anti-magic zone that would affect any magic user who enters it, and the Trimarine knew about it, and prepared for it. If they can do that, so can we.”
“Our mana engine, which powers the boat’s impellers, works by magic, too,” said Kerrigan. “And it’s obviously unaffected by this zone, or field, or whatever it is, otherwise we would have fallen out of the sky days ago. So perhaps it can channel magic in such a fashion that you can use it.”
“Nothing but supposition,” Marigold said, but she was staring at the metal sphere as she did so.
There were footsteps from outside the chamber, and Captain Timons climbed in through the hatch. Kerrigan immediately stood up straight and saluted.
“At ease,” said the captain. “What’s your status, Chief?”
“We were just about to see if this scheme could work, Captain,” said Kerrigan. He pressed in a small lever on the metal sphere, and opened a panel in its front; the thrum grew deeper and louder. The interior of the sphere was lined with metal contacts, and clamped into its precise center was a demijohn of glass and silver. The quality of the material was subtly different from everything around it, a clean smoothness that the eye just slid off. Inside the glass container, a dim green glow shone.
“This is the mana engine,” Kerrigan said.
“Thought it would be bigger,” said Marigold.
She stepped forward; Kerrigan moved aside. The sorceress reached out one arm and touched the surface of the engine.
She stretched out her other arm and opened her hand.
A tiny flame ignited, dancing in her palm.
Marigold turned to look at everyone in the room. She opened her mouth, but no words came out. She hesitated, tried to speak again.
“Whose idea was this?” she said, eventually.
Jinna and Lady Xiang glanced at each other.
“Well, it was Dr. Leng’s in the end,” the beast-woman said finally. “I suppose he realized we can’t make it to this city of his, assuming it exists, without you to help fend off the Trimarine. So he spent a considerable amount of time trying to come up with a solution to your problem. I admire his dedication, considering that he can’t stand the sight of you.”
Jinna stirred a bit at this, but kept silent.
“I see,” said Marigold. “It works, I won’t deny it. But I can’t very well fight this sorcerer from the engine room.”
“The mana engine is just this jar here,” said Kerrigan. “Everything else in the room is our own machinery for making use of it. You could remove it and, well, wear it on your back, like their sorcerer does.”
“Clever,” interrupted Timons, “but I need that engine to keep my boat in the air, Chief.”
“If we charge them up beforehand, the impellers can store enough power to keep operating for about twenty minutes,” Kerrigan answered. “As long as the mana engine is back in place by then…”
The captain frowned. “So we’d need to defeat a ship that still outguns us in less than twenty minutes. That’s a heavy lift.”
Kerrigan nodded. “I don’t have any illusions about that, Captain. But if it comes to a battle, it’s either fight the Grand Guignol, or fight the Grand Guignol, and a sorcerer.”
“So it is,” sighed Timons. “Well, that’s what I get for asking my people to come up with out-of-the-box ideas. They’re liable to call my bluff.”
He turned to Marigold. The sorceress was still touching the engine with one hand, and staring into the flicker of fire in her other hand.
“Sorceress Marigold,” said the captain. “Will you agree to this plan? If it comes down to a battle with Markonic, will you fight alongside us?”
“Well,” said the sorceress.
She let go of the mana engine. The little flame in her left hand went out, but she was smiling.
“…Since you asked so nicely, how can I refuse?”
* * * *
The successful test of the mana engine had briefly lifted Michelle’s spirits, but the Grand Guignol did not reappear the next day, nor the day after that. The clouds that had been moving in for the past few days settled into a vast mass of white that all but shut down the observation program. Marigold did not return to the daily briefings, and Dr. Leng had gotten, if possible, even more tense and surly than he usually was.
It was around midnight on the third day when the general quarters alarm went off and woke Michelle out of a sound sleep, nearly making her crack her head on the bulkhead inches above her bunk. She managed to make it to the floor without injury and pushed open the hatch of her compartment a crack to see men swarming through the halls of the crew quarters.
“Hey!” she shouted at a sailor’s retreating back. “What’s going on?”
“Enemy cruiser sighted, that’s all I know, ma’am!” the man called over his shoulder. “It’s all hands on deck!”
Ma’am. How flattering. In the beginning, it had been difficult getting the ship’s personnel to take a diminutive, mousy, stammering sixteen-year-old girl in glasses too seriously, but after she had helped see off the Grand Guignol’s boarding attempt they had adopted her as a bit of a mascot. It was weird but Michelle found herself not entirely minding. She closed the hatch, quickly dressed, put on her sword, and headed out, hurrying towards Engineering.
* * * *
“Stop fidgeting!” barked an angry voice from inside the mana engine chamber. Michelle peeked inside.
The room was a hive of activity. Kerrigan had the metal sphere open at the end of the room and was loosening the clamps which held the mana engine itself in place; his assistants were monitoring and adjusting dials or standing by ready to run messages back and forth. Seated on a stool in the center of the room was Marigold, wearing one of the spare sailors’ uniforms they had found for her. Dr. Leng himself, to Michelle’s surprise, was standing behind her and tightening the numerous straps on a large metal-and-leather contraption she had on her back.
“I am not fidgeting,” Marigold said primly. “Sorceresses do not fidget, or squirm, or wriggle.”
“You are wriggling,” muttered Leng. “And quite intentionally too. Don’t think I don’t realize it.” He braced one hand on her back, grabbed one of the straps and pulled hard on it, making her yelp, then fastened it home.
“Really!” said Marigold. “I didn’t know you were into the rough stuff, Doctor.”
“Would you prefer that this thing slip off your back in the middle of a fight? It’ll be a long drop if that happens.”
“Ah, Marigold, Dr. Leng…?” began Michelle uncertainly. She had a weird feeling that she shouldn’t interrupt.
Leng practically jumped at her voice, then recovered his composure. “Ah. Michelle. You’re finally here. Take over for me, will you?” He hurried over to the far end of the room to talk to Kerrigan.
“Excellent timing, assistant,” Marigold said, rolling her eyes. She stretched out an arm and swung it around a few times, testing the give on the straps.
“What? Should I have gotten here earlier?”
“Never mind. Has our opponent shown his face yet?”
“According to one of the guys outside we sighted the Grand Guignol at high altitude, probably searching for us. No sign of the sorcerer so far.”
“He’ll be here,” muttered Marigold.
“Why do you think he’s fighting for them?” Michelle asked. In her experience the chances of Marigold having any kind of unique insight on anything were close to zero, but she had to try just in case.
“I have a suspicion,” said Marigold. Huh, I guess the world is full of surprises. “He could be some sort of sincere revolutionary, but… it’s far more likely that the Trimarine have leverage over him.”
“What do you mean, leverage?”
“Family. Friends. Someone he loves. There’s no way they could force a sorcerer to do anything and nothing they could bribe one with, so if he isn’t helping voluntarily the Trimarine must be holding someone hostage to force his cooperation. That’s my bet.”
“Is…” Michelle glanced around the room. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to them, but she lowered her voice anyway. “Is that why you won’t talk about your family?”
Marigold scowled. “Not that it’s any of your business, assistant, but yes. When my powers manifested I cut all ties with them, changed my name and appearance, and went so far as to erase evidence of my previous life so no one could connect us. This man would have been wise to do so, as well.”
“That’s…” Michelle barely remembered her own mother and father, but she did remember that they had cast her away, and how much it hurt every day. “…cold.”
“It was necessary,” Marigold said simply.
They looked up as a sailor ran up to the hatch. “Captain’s compliments,” said the man, “and we are initiating the attack in one minute.”
“Understood. Battle stations, everyone!” Kerrigan shouted. Half-a-dozen ratings took off out of the compartment.
“Wait, what?” Michelle said. “We’re going to attack them?”
“That’s the Captain’s plan. The Grand Guignol still outguns us, remember,” answered Kerrigan. “If we don’t throw the first punch they’ll definitely throw the last one. Marigold, are you ready?”
“I was born ready,” said the sorceress. “Hit me.”
Kerrigan stepped over to the mana engine and carefully lifted it out of the metal sphere. The all-consuming low thrum in the room went silent, and in that moment Michelle could hear the staccato clicks of dozens of needles falling to the bottom of their gauges.
The ship did not drop out of the sky.
“So far, so good,” said Kerrigan.
He walked the weighty silver-and-glass jar over to where Marigold sat, lowered it into the mass of straps and metal rods on her back, and fastened it in place.
“Well?” he said. “Is it working?”
“This thing’s heavy,” Marigold said. “And…”
She carefully stood up.
Then she floated upwards, about a foot off the ground.
“…It will do.”
She turned to look at Dr. Leng, who was leaning against the wall, arms folded, a sour expression on his face.
“Happy?” he said.
“Very much so,” Marigold answered, and vanished in a flash of light.
* * * *
Kerrigan had unsubtly encouraged Michelle to find somewhere she wouldn’t be underfoot during the impending battle. Without Marigold around Michelle felt herself at loose ends, but then she had realized there was someone else who was probably in the same position as her.
“Ray!” Michelle said, waving.
Ray Vincent looked up from the corner he was standing in. “Hey, Michelle.” He was wearing his usual blue bodysuit and had his sword on his back, but there was a white armband tied around his upper arm.
“They have you on medical staff?” Michelle said suspiciously as she noticed the armband. “I remember something about you not knowing any first aid.”
“Well, yeah, but I can at least throw someone over my shoulder and carry them to the infirmary.” He shook his head. “I don’t have a lot of qualifications, but that’s something. I just don’t want to be completely useless.”
“I know how you feel.”
There was a nearby roar as the ship’s guns fired in a full broadside and the corridor rocked slightly.
“There we go,” said Michelle. “The attack’s started, and I guess Marigold’s holding off the enemy’s sorcerer. Either that or she just ran away while she had the opportunity. What do you think? Do we have a chance?”
“I have no idea. You’ve actually seen this other ship, what do you think?”
“Um, well. It had a lot of guns.”
The Aquila’s guns roared again.
Moments later the ship slammed backwards around them. A gout of smoke and fiery debris rolled down the corridor. Fire alarms began to ring.
“A lot of guns, you say?” Ray shouted over the sudden din. He squinted into the smoke, eyes watering.
“What’s down there?” Michelle asked.
“The port gundeck.” He took a deep breath. “I’d better get in there.”
“I’ll come with you,” Michelle said decisively.
“Do you know any medical stuff?”
“Well, I read up a bit the past few days. Because people keep getting stabbed near me, you know?” Mostly by me, too, she didn’t add.
They hurried down the corridor into a chaotic scene. An enemy shell had struck one of the Aquila’s gun turrets dead-on, blowing it apart. Half of the turret was open to the skies, a chilly gale sucking smoke and sparks out of the ship. Beyond was clouds and darkness.
“Here!” Ray called. He started lifting twisted pieces of metal and tossing them aside. One of the Aquila’s ratings was lying in the wreckage of the turret, covered in blood and moaning in pain.
Michelle fumbled at the sailor’s hand and checked his heartbeat. “Strong pulse, I think he’ll survive, but we have to get him out of here.”
She moved to help Ray get the debris out of the way. The Aquila’s guns fired once more and the ship rocked as another volley of returning shells hit it, fortunately none right on top of them this time.
“I’m starting to think this was a super bad plan,” Ray said.
“Well, maybe the other guys are doing worse? We could be winning.”
“If this is winning, what does losing feel like?”
Between them, they managed to get the groaning man to his feet.
“Look,” said Ray, in sudden awe.
Michelle twisted her head to look out of the ruined turret. The Aquila had gone into a sharp ascent and the night sky was visible above the clouds. The heavens were filled with radiant colors and fading shockwaves. As they watched, a green streak of light slammed into a red one, setting off another vast flare sweeping through the sky.
“I guess Marigold is doing her thing,” Michelle said, “and the bad guys’ sorcerer is too.” Or are we supposed to be the bad guys? Marigold would say that, I’m sure. I can’t keep track any more.
“I’m glad I have no clue what’s going on,” said Ray. “Let’s get this guy to the infirmary.”
* * * *
The trip there was nightmarish, as the Aquila’s guns fired over and over again and enemy return fire repeatedly hammered into their ship. Michelle tried to keep track in her head whether their own fire was slacking off faster than the enemy’s, but it was too chaotic to be sure what was happening. The smell of smoke was omnipresent, and twice they had to backtrack due to corridors blocked with masses of twisted, burning metal.
When they did get to the infirmary, the compartment was filled with wounded men, some on cots, the better-off ones sitting on the floor with dazed looks on their faces. Michelle had seen entirely too much blood in the past several weeks, and this additional dose wasn’t doing wonders for her well-being. They handed off their charge to a harried-looking orderly and turned to go when a voice shouted, “You! Get in here!”
The chief medical officer, a short, balding man whose name Michelle had never gotten, was waving to them. His smock was covered in red, and on the table in front of him a muscular sailor was thrashing and screaming and barely being held down by two more orderlies.
“Yes, you! Vincent, right? Help hold this man down so I can operate on him.”
Ray hesitated a moment, then nodded and rushed into the fray.
“And you! Miss!”
“Me, sir?” squeaked Michelle.
“Go to the bridge! Tell the captain he has to hold the boat stable! I can’t work in these conditions!”
“Um, I don’t think he’ll –”
“Go, for God’s sake!” snapped the doctor.
* * * *
She didn’t even remember the journey to the bridge, at this point: just a world of explosions and smoke and terrifying, unexplained drops when the whole ship would go into freefall for a moment and then recover.
As she scrambled up the gangway, she saw a scene of controlled efficiency. At least Captain Timons is holding it together up here, she thought. Then she got a good look through the bridge windows and gasped.
There was the Grand Guignol, practically right on top of them, facing broadside on. The ship’s proud outline was shattered, its superstructure in ruins, fire and black smoke gouting from its hull in a dozen places. Several of its gun turrets were destroyed, but several more weren’t, and even as she watched three of them fired. All three shells struck home and the ship rocked back.
“Another direct hit to the starboard gundeck!” announced an officer. “We’ve lost our last turret on the starboard side!”
“We’re running out of time,” called another. “Less than three minutes to estimated loss of impeller power.”
Timons stared at the Grand Guignol.
“You think you have us dead to rights, Markonic?” he murmured. “We’ll see.”
He turned to the navigator.
“Head for the enemy ship,” he said. “Full speed, aim directly for its center.”
The young navigator visibly gulped as he dialed in the course. “Sir, you’re not planning to…”
Timons patted him on the shoulder. “Relax. I’m not going to ram them, Ensign. I have something different in mind.” He stepped over to the weapons officer. “Arm the torpedoes and disable range safeties.”
The officer looked confused. “Torpedoes, sir? They’re not going to… you know. Work, when we’re not underwater.”
“Oh, they’ll work long enough, trust me,” said Timons, with a ghost of a smile on his face.
“Yes, sir. Flooding the, um… well, we’ll skip that step…” The weapons officer began flipping switches on his control panel.
The captain stepped back to the center of the bridge, as they accelerated towards the Grand Guignol. He took a deep breath.
“Sound evacuation bells!” he ordered. “Get all crew out of the forward sections, order everyone to brace for violent maneuvering! On my mark,” he continued, “fire both torpedoes and then maximum acceleration, straight up or as close as you can get. We’re not going to ram her. But we are going to break her, right here and right now.”
I hope by “her” he doesn’t mean us, drifted through Michelle’s mind as she clung, terrified, to the back wall of the bridge and watched the proceedings. I’m just a glorified janitor. Why do I keep ending up in these situations?
The Grand Guignol began to fill the windows, a wall of burning steel. Apparently someone on the other ship had realized they were up to something and it was turning, but slowly, far too slowly.
“Now!” shouted the captain. “Fire and ascend!”
“Brace, brace, brace!” called another voice across the bridge. Michelle flung herself to the floor and clutched desperately at the base of a nearby console.
There was a distant whoosh, as the Aquila’s torpedoes were propelled out of their tubes by powerful bursts of compressed air. The torpedoes began to tumble through the atmosphere, propellers spinning uselessly. Then, they both struck the side of the Grand Guignol.
The sound and light was unbelievable. Michelle squeezed her eyes tightly shut, but its radiance seemed to burn through her eyelids. It was followed by a universe of metal and shattering glass.
She opened her eyes. The bridge was ruined, its windows smashed and debris everywhere; cold air was howling in. Outside, the cruiser Grand Guignol was in two immense pieces, its forward and rear halves sliding away to either side. As she watched, a vast, gutting fireball swept through the rear section, its heat burning her skin, and that entire half of the vessel blew apart. The Aquila shook wildly as tons of metal smashed against its hull and the ship began to tilt downwards.
Captain Timons pulled himself to his feet. “Damage control!” he called out, then looked directly at her. “You! Michelle!”
“What?” Standing, she looked back and forth wildly. Most of the officers were slumped over their consoles, groaning in pain or not moving at all.
“The impellers! We need the impellers! That board, there!” He pointed towards the back of the bridge.
Michelle ran to the location the Captain had indicated, struggling against the increasing tilt of the deck. She stared at the vast array of lights on the damage control board and searched until she found the words IMPELLERS – FORWARD and IMPELLERS – AFT. The two FORWARD lights were flickering yellow and went out as she watched.
“I think they’re gone!” she said.
The Aquila had tipped far forward and was definitely falling now. Thousands of pieces of burning and occasionally exploding wreckage were falling out of the air alongside it. Outside the shattered windows, the clouds parted and an endless darkened landscape of ice and snow rose up towards them, faster and faster.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” said a familiar voice. “I leave you people alone for a few minutes and just look at this mess.”
Just like that, the sorceress was standing in the middle of the ruined bridge. Her borrowed military uniform was in tatters and she looked scorched in a half-dozen places, but the mana engine was still securely strapped to her back and she had an enormous smile on her face.
“That,” Marigold said, “was invigorating.”
“The Trimarine sorcerer!” Timons said. “Is he still out there?”
* * * *
“What are they holding over you?” said the sorceress.
Dessolin struggled against the bands of force that she had clapped around him in the moment of distraction caused by the breaking of the Grand Guignol, but they held him tight. Finally, he turned to look at the woman.
“My mother and father,” he said. “And my brothers. In two different prisons, linked by telegraph. So I could never save them all.”
“What a sad, sad tale,” said Marigold, shaking her head. “In the sense that your behavior is just sad. Really, have some self-respect. You’re a sorcerer, for God’s sake! When you give in to those jumped-up bullies you make us all look bad.”
“Who are the Archimedeans holding to ensure your cooperation?” Dessolin retorted angrily.
“Nobody,” said Marigold. “They asked nicely.”
She looked like she was considering something. Then she reached out and snapped her fingers.
Dessolin tensed, expecting the end. Instead the bands of force vanished, and he almost dropped out of the air in surprise.
“What are you playing at?” he snarled, once he had regained his wits.
“How tragic,” said Marigold, “that after he foolishly picked a fight with Marigold, the most powerful and beautiful sorceress in the world, the Trimarines’ pet sorcerer was never heard from again.”
Dessolin stared at her.
“Oh, must I spell out everything?” she said, exasperated. “You. Sorcerer. Play dead. Go hide somewhere. Then when this whole ancient lost city situation is sorted out, look me up in Archimedea and we’ll do together what you clearly can’t, or won’t, do alone.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Because I can’t stand the pathetic look on your face! Now run along before I change my mind. I have things to do.”
* * * *
“I don’t think,” said Marigold at last, “you’ll need to worry about him anymore.”
“Marigold,” said Michelle, “this ship’s going to –”
“Yes, yes, assistant, I know. Let me just take care of that.”
She stretched out her arms. Their fall slowed, and slowed some more, and the Aquila’s prow rose up to face the horizon again.
Then the green glow in the mana engine guttered, and went out.
“Oh well,” said Marigold the Sorceress, “I tried.”
The Aquila dropped like a stone.
* * * *
Fortunately, Marigold had straightened the Aquila out when it was only a few hundred feet off the ground and its impellers had still possessed a flicker of power, so when it slammed into an ice-covered lake it wasn’t going nearly as quickly as it could have otherwise. It was bad enough, though.
The captain convened a small meeting of the expedition’s exhausted principals in the mess hall at sunrise of the next day, once most of the fires had been put out and most of the wounds had been bandaged. Michelle and Ray were watching from the back of the room.
“The Grand Guignol has been defeated,” he began without preamble. “However, I won’t sugarcoat this. The Aquila suffered grave damage in the battle, and we have taken numerous casualties.” This was obvious, of course. The mess hall was tilted ten degrees, as the ship was resting on the shallow seabed of the ice lake, and the air was cold, sighing in through uncountable gaping holes in the hull that had been hastily covered with tarpaulins. “The crew fought gallantly, and it is only due to the unstinting courage of all on board the Aquila that any of us lived to tell the tale. But I’m afraid that with our ship in this state, our mission is a failure, and the responsibility for that lies squarely on my shoulders.” Timons paused. “We must call off our search for Mist of Morning, and work out how to safely return to civilized lands.”
Dr. Leng closed his eyes and put a hand to his temple, but did not speak. His right arm was in a sling, having been broken by flying debris during the Aquila’s crash.
Marigold had taken the chair next to him, and occasionally glanced over at the academic, but remained silent as well.
“Chief Engineer,” said Captain Timons, “what is our status?”
Kerrigan nodded. “The boat is in very poor shape, like you said. However, our basic structure is intact. The aft impellers are fine and the forward impellers are damaged, but repairable. Our real problem is the mana engine: we don’t know why it failed, but without that, we cannot fly.”
An uneasy murmur ran around the room.
“That said,” Kerrigan continued, elevating his voice to silence the hubbub, “even if we can’t fly, we may be able to sail. Within a few weeks we should be able to repair the hull enough to make it watertight again, and the non-magical engine, at least, is in good working order.”
The captain turned to Leng. “Can we do that, Doctor? Just sail out of here?”
Dr. Leng sighed. He looked thoroughly defeated, and when he spoke it was with none of his usual angry energy.
“This area is very poorly charted,” he said. “What little we do know, and even ‘know’ is a strong word, is passed down through rumors of lost expeditions dating back hundreds or even thousands of years. However, some maps do show broad rivers of glacial melt connecting the continental interior to the open ocean far west of the Great Sea, and we did land in a lake… so.” He held up a hand, his left, and tilted it back and forth. “Perhaps.”
“Sounds better than walking, anyway,” said Lady Xiang.
“Indeed,” said Captain Timons. “Very well, then, that is our plan. We will repair the hull, float the Aquila, and return home by sea. Next on the agenda, our food stores --”
Michelle abruptly stood up and walked out. The Captain stopped in his tracks and the room was silent as she left.
Ray got up, quickly threw the rest of the room an apologetic shrug, and hurried after her.
* * * *
“Hey,” Ray said as he caught up to Michelle outside, “what’s going on? It’s not like you to just barge out like that.”
“I can hear it,” she said.
Michelle marched away down the corridor. Ray hurried to keep up.
“The noise,” she said. “The same noise. I’ve been hearing it since last night. It’s so loud, can’t you hear it? It’s this way.”
“Wait, you don’t mean the noise from the castle?”
Michelle descended a gangway to the next lower level of the ship. An inch or two of icy water covered the deck and her boots splashed in it.
“Hey! Slow down!”
At the far end of the corridor was a tarp covering one of the holes torn open by the Grand Guignol’s shellfire; beyond that was the pink sky of early morning. She reached the hole, climbed outside, and slid down a heap of snow and ice that had piled up when the Aquila had crashed.
Ray got to the opening in the hull and saw her walking away, across the packed snow.
It’s not cold at all, some detached part of Michelle’s mind marveled. Or maybe it is and I just don’t care. I wonder where I’m going?
No, I shouldn’t kid myself. I know exactly where I’m going. I’ve been going there for a long time now, whether I knew it or not.
She climbed to the lip of a vast dune of snow several hundred feet from their stranded vessel and stopped.
Panting and gasping, Ray caught up to her again. “Michelle, come back to the ship. Seriously, I’m getting worried.”
She didn’t respond, just stretched out her arm and pointed. Ray followed the arm and then stared in astonishment.
Beyond the top of the hill, the ground sloped away in a long, gentle curve, into a shallow bowl that looked like it was miles across, sunken in between mountains of ice.
Filling the valley was a city. The city was black as night, silhouetted against the rising sun peeking over the horizon. It was made up of dozens of hexagonal plates, each one many hundreds of feet across, atop which great towers and arches and pillars of all sizes reached towards the sky. The bases of the towers were wreathed in white mist.
Michelle had seen those kinds of towers before. Indeed, she had lived in one for the past ten years.
“That’s it,” Michelle said.
“That’s…” Ray said, boggling.
She took a deep breath.
“Mist of Morning.”
Minor chaos had broken out at the lip of the snowy hill overlooking Mist of Morning. Marigold had followed Michelle and Ray out of the ship to see what was going on, and then Lady Xiang had followed Marigold out to find out what she was scheming, and soon enough a small crowd was standing out in the snow and the cold, boggling at the ancient city that spread across the valley.
“I was right!” said Dr. Leng. He seemed to be having trouble breathing. “Of course I was right, but – I was right!” He turned to Michelle. “How did you know it was here?” he said urgently.
“I… I wish I understood,” Michelle stammered. The signal that had pulled her out of the ship and to the edge of the hill had vanished shortly after the great black city came into view, leaving her dizzy and disoriented. “There was this… this noise, and…”
“She knew,” Marigold announced, throwing an arm around her, “because my assistant is a rare and perceptive individual. Simple as that. And one who is going to be explaining a few things to me later if she knows what’s good for her,” she added quietly, leaning down to Michelle’s ear. Michelle shuddered.
Leng turned to Captain Timons. “We must organize a scouting expedition into the city, Captain, right away. I’ll need to borrow some of your men. Ten… no, fifteen, should suffice for the initial push.”
“I can’t spare that many crew, Doctor Leng,” objected the Captain. “In fact, I can’t spare anybody, until we have a handle on the repairs. We’re on a clock with our food supplies as it is.”
“Then my research team and I will go alone.”
“Your entire research team is walking wounded,” said Timons sharply. “Are you in any shape to explore an ancient ruin with your arm in a sling, Doctor?”
“But Captain!” Leng wheedled. “It’s right there! You must send someone!”
Captain Timons sighed. “Once the repairs are on track, I’ll shake a couple of men loose so we can at least get a preliminary survey done. But you’ll have to be patient. I’m sorry, but we have the survival of everyone on the Aquila to think about.”
Dr. Leng looked like he was about to continue arguing, when Marigold interrupted him.
“I have an alternative,” she said. “My minions and I will explore the city.”
“Absolutely not,” said Lady Xiang immediately.
“Agreed,” said Dr. Leng.
“I don’t need people wandering around unescorted out here,” said Captain Timons.
Marigold shook her head sadly.
“You don’t get it, Captain,” she said. “The matter is decided. We’re going. Now of course I still don’t have use of my magic, so if you want to throw me in the brig – assuming it still exists, of course – you can certainly do that.” She smiled. “But how will that be any better for you?”
Timons looked dyspeptic. “This is against my recommendation,” he said.
“I’ll be sure to make a note of that. We shall get supplies from the Aquila and leave in an hour.”
“I’m coming too,” Lady Xiang announced.
“My Lady!” Timons said desperately.
“My whole purpose in being here is to make sure that sorceress,” at this the beast-woman pointed at Marigold who just continued to smile her infuriating, predatory smile, “doesn’t get up to whatever mischief she pleases in that city. So if you’re not going to stop her, Captain, then I’m going with her.”
“I have no problems with your request,” Marigold said cheerfully.
“As well you shouldn’t,” said Lady Xiang.
“I can always use another minion.”
Lady Xiang stared at her. Her face reddened and her mouth opened and closed like a fish’s.
“What did you just say?” she managed eventually. “Minion? I’m not --”
Dr. Leng spoke up. “Marigold. I need you to promise me something.”
He stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder.
“That’s awfully forward for you, Doctor,” Marigold said.
He shook his head. “It’s about that city. Promise me…”
“That you won’t break it.”
“Unlike the Ancient Flying Castle, you will treat it with the respect it deserves. You will leave it intact, so future philosophers and historians can study it properly. This is important, Marigold.”
She was silent for a few moments.
“Please,” said Dr. Leng.
Marigold looked deeply uncomfortable and tried not to meet his gaze.
“…Fine!” she said at last. “I promise I’ll take care of it for the future… inheritance of man or whatever that thing is you said the other day. I won’t break it.”
“Thank you.” He let go of her and stepped back.
Marigold looked thoughtful. “I don’t really understand why you care so much about this stuff, Doctor.”
“It’s because –” he began.
“But I admire it,” Marigold finished, leaned forward and kissed him.
Michelle stared at them in shock.
“Now come along, minions!” the sorceress declared, straightening up. “And that includes you, Lady Xiang. We have a city to seize.”
With one arm around Michelle and the other around Ray, she marched them off towards the Aquila.
“I am not a minion!” Lady Xiang said angrily. “I’m not.”
Fuming, she followed them.
Captain Timons turned to Dr. Leng. “What was that all about?”
Leng didn’t say anything. He just stared back at the Aquila in wonderment, touching his lips.
* * * *
Mist of Morning was a very quiet place.
After getting proper winter clothing and supplies from the Aquila for a short journey, Marigold, Michelle, Ray, and Lady Xiang had hiked down into the vast, shallow valley that held Mist of Morning. Contrary to what its name might imply, the mist that wreathed the city hadn’t cleared up as the sun rose higher. As they got closer to the great black towers Marigold threw open the heavy military greatcoat she was wearing, commenting on how warm it was.
They crossed into the city proper after an hour or two. Wide, unmarked, obsidian-black avenues were scattered with windblown snow surrounded by pools of evaporating water.
“The streets are melting the snow that lands on it,” Ray said. “No wonder this place hasn’t been buried.”
They approached one of the grand towers, a hundred-foot-tall, windowless, rectangular structure that seemed to be made from uncountable numbers of identical stone blocks, just like the towers of the Ancient Flying Castle. A wide oblong doorway opened into relative darkness, and they peered in. The entire inside of the building was a single space, reaching all the way up to the roof far above. Other than a dusting of snow in the corners, the building was empty.
The next building, a wide, low cylinder shape, was the same, and so was the one after that.
“I think Dr. Leng is going to be disappointed,” Marigold said eventually. “Not to mention me too. There’s nothing here.” She kicked at the doorjamb of the latest structure they had just peeked inside, clearly irritated.
“I wonder if this is actually a city,” Lady Xiang said. She still looked sour at being unwillingly drafted into Marigold’s merry band. Join the club, Michelle thought, I have a lifetime membership.
Still, though… “What else would it be?” Michelle asked her curiously.
“Not a city,” said the beast-woman. “Cities have signs, furniture, vehicles, lights… not just buildings. But the sorceress is right. There’s nothing here.”
“This place is really old, right?” said Ray. “Like, ten thousand years old? Maybe all that stuff… rotted, or whatever?”
Lady Xiang didn’t look convinced. “Did the floors and windows of these buildings rot, too? Nobody could live in a place like this.”
Increasingly uneasy, the four of them rounded the building at the next street corner and stopped dead.
An immense pile of blue-painted steel wreckage stood before them. Michelle instantly recognized it as the forward section of the Grand Guignol. The front of the broken airship had smashed down into Mist of Morning, flattening one of the smaller buildings and throwing a fan of debris in all directions. It loomed over them like a mountain.
“Well, that’s, um…” Marigold said eventually. “Huh.”
“Do you think anyone could have survived that?” Michelle asked. She wasn’t sure what was worse, the guilt if no one had made it out or the fear that someone had.
“We’d better be cautious,” Lady Xiang said, apparently echoing her thoughts. Her hands had stolen immediately to the weapons at her hips. “I doubt they’ll be too happy with us if they did.”
“We could go into that wreck and see if we could salvage any supplies the Aquila would need,” Ray said.
“Yes,” said Marigold. “We could do that.”
Nobody moved. They stood there in silence for a few moments.
“Assistant,” said Marigold. “That noise you were complaining about endlessly in the Ancient Flying Castle. You heard it on the way here too, did you?”
“Y-yes,” Michelle said.
“Do you hear it now?”
Michelle felt stricken. You had to ask me that, didn’t you?
Because of course she did.
“Yes,” she nearly whimpered.
“Well then!” Marigold said brightly. “It seems to guide us to all the most interesting things. So lead on, assistant!”
* * * *
The signal pulled Michelle forward, ever forward, getting louder and louder, towards whatever fate Reve had planned for her and, if Xanadu was right, the entire world. Unknowingly, Marigold, Ray, and Lady Xiang followed her. Not understanding what was going on, because of course she hadn’t told them everything she had seen, and why hadn’t she? She mentally kicked herself for her ridiculous shame and secrecy and all who might suffer for it.
They rounded another corner onto the broadest avenue yet. At its far end, almost a half-mile away, was an open square containing a building a little taller than the others. It was trapezoidal in shape, its sides gently sloping up to an elaborate portico perched on top, about a hundred and fifty feet in the air.
That’s it. She knew it immediately. That’s where we’re going. Soon I’ll lose myself completely, and go in there and do what Reve wants me to do, and there’s nobody who can stop it…
That’s not true. There is one person here who can stop it.
She took a deep breath.
Xanadu, I’m stopping this.
The sword seemed taken aback. What do you mean?
I’m the keystone of this plan. Reve can’t win without me. So I’m stopping now.
We have to see this through, Xanadu began.
No. No, we don’t.
Abruptly, because she knew if she waited any longer the signal would overcome her completely and it would become impossible, Michelle let her legs slide out from under her and she crashed to the ground.
Ray hurried to her side. “Hey, are you all right?”
“I’m not taking one more step,” Michelle stated from where she sat in the middle of the roadway.
“Assistant!” Marigold said sharply. “We’re on a vital mission to seize the power of this city for my plan of world conquest. This is no time for lollygagging. Now you listen to me –”
“No!” she shouted.
Marigold looked taken aback. “Assistant…?”
“You listen to me! We absolutely can’t go any further. We absolutely must turn around and go back to the ship, right this instant, and forget this place ever existed.”
Lady Xiang raised a hand to forestall another tirade from Marigold. “You’ve been acting strangely for a while, Michelle,” the beast-woman said. “What’s going on?”
Pathetic gratitude suffused Michelle. In that moment she wanted to hug Lady Xiang just for being sensible. “Okay. I’ll tell you everything. It all started when –”
“Hands on your heads, and nobody make any sudden moves!”
No. Why now?
Taken completely by surprise, they all turned to see a group of armed men marching out of the nearest building. Six bedraggled Trimarine soldiers, armed with rifles and bayonets, aimed and ready to fire. A tall, thin, foppishly dressed fellow whose hair was done up in extravagant blond curls. And the speaker, a compact, burly, dangerous-looking man with graying hair and an enormous, piratical black beard, wearing a blue naval uniform and holding a pistol in one meaty hand.
“Markonic,” breathed Lady Xiang.
“Lady Xiang Bettancourt, yes? I see my reputation precedes me,” said Captain Markonic in his gravelly voice, sketching a slight bow. “And you would be the sorceress Marigold, and her attendants. Pleased to finally meet you in person. Now before we proceed, if you would all be so kind as to throw your weapons on the ground over there.” He gestured casually with his pistol. “Slowly, now. And collect that young lady’s sword, too.”
Carefully and without any sudden moves they cooperated, making a pile of weapons in the middle of the avenue.
“What do you want, Markonic?” Lady Xiang said. Her eyes didn’t waver from the pistol in his hand as she did so.
“What do I want?” shrugged Markonic. “Home, hearth, family? I suppose I’m not the one who gets to say.” He glanced towards his well-dressed companion.
“What we want,” stated the foppish blonde man as he stepped forward, “is this city. And you’re going to help us get it.” His voice was sharp, and intensely confident.
“And you are?” said Marigold, in a bored tone.
“Representative-on-Mission Goujon,” the man stated. “I speak for the Committee of National Safety in Fort Liberty.”
“And that means what to me?”
“It means that your very lives are in my hands, so you’d best watch your tongue.”
Marigold rolled her eyes. “Aren’t you worried that I’ll hit you with some sort of sorcerous whammy, Representative-on-Mission What’s-Your-Name? After all, I splattered that incompetent sorcerer of yours all over the sky. There wasn’t enough left of him to fill a teaspoon.”
Even through Michelle’s misery this remark sounded odd, and she looked up sharply at the sorceress. Did you really kill him? But Marigold seemed calm, cool, confident as always.
Markonic was shaking his head, though. “Don’t try to fool us, sorceress,” he said. “We are well aware, even if you weren’t, that this entire region is suffused by some kind of anti-magic field. Without some contrivance to aid you, you are just an ordinary woman. So like the man says. Watch your tongue, if you mean to keep it.”
Marigold glowered at them, but kept silent.
“Now then,” said Goujon, “if we are quite done.” He suddenly turned to Michelle. “You.”
“W-what? Me?” she stammered.
“We overheard enough to know you have some sort of connection with this place. So you are going to lead us to its center.” He pointed imperiously. “Up, up. Get up.”
“N-no.” She shook her head wildly. “No! You mustn’t!”
“Really! This is intolerable.” Goujon stepped forward, grabbed the collar of Michelle’s robe and tried to drag her to her feet.
“Get your hands off her!” Ray shouted angrily, charging forward and pushing Goujon aside.
Ray froze as three bayonets moved towards his face and chest.
“I should have you run through for that impertinence,” Goujon said, brushing off his coat.
He looked down at Michelle, who was staring at him in horror.
“However, I suspect that would make our new ally very unhappy, wouldn’t it? I propose a deal. You walk forward, and your chivalrous young man does not soil these beautifully clean avenues with his blood.”
No. Please, no. You can’t.
Trapped, she slowly, painfully pulled herself to her feet.
The signal pounded victoriously in her head and soon she knew no more.
* * * *
Down the avenue, straight to the great ziggurat at the center of the city. The prisoners moved in resentful silence, bayonets at their backs, following Michelle as she staggered blindly on. Lady Xiang’s eyes constantly darted from one Trimarine to the next, watching for an opening, never finding one.
The central building was just as empty as its fellows, except for a broad, railing-less staircase. Made of the same black stone as the rest of the building, the stairs rose from the center and traveled around the walls, all the way up to the roof.
The portico was sunk into the roof of the ziggurat, its top open to the sky, and extended from edge to edge, about fifty feet across in total. As they ascended the last step to the roof they saw that at its center was a gray control pedestal, a twin to the one in the Ancient Flying Castle.
“That’s –” Ray began, before Lady Xiang sent a killer look his way and he closed his mouth.
“That’s what?” said Markonic.
“That’s, um… a really nice view from up here, don’t you think?” Ray concluded brightly.
Lady Xiang sighed.
Michelle reached out helplessly, flailing towards the control pedestal in the middle of the roof and occasionally making a faint keening noise, but one of the soldiers was holding her by the scruff of her coat.
“Well, Goujon?” Markonic said. “This is clearly the center of it all. Now what?”
“Now…” Goujon rubbed his hands together and marched towards the pedestal.
They watched in silence as he inspected it, then pressed his hands against various parts of its surface, then kicked it in frustration.
“It’s not working,” he said.
“I guess that’s it for the city, then,” said Ray. “How about we all call it a day and go home?”
“If he speaks again, kill him,” Goujon said without looking back. Ray shut up.
“Goujon,” Markonic sighed. “You’re a politician, not a philosopher. What do you think you’re going to figure out here?”
“Understanding such a device as this is trivial for a properly educated man!” barked the other man, getting down on his knees and peering under the pedestal.
Eventually he stood up.
“This is a city of sorcery,” he said. “So let’s ask a sorceress.”
He marched back to the small group.
“Marigold. You will make this place work,” Goujon said.
“How?” she answered directly.
“You’re a sorceress. You’ll know how to do it.”
“No, I’m just an ordinary woman, remember? That was literally fifteen minutes ago. Try and keep up.”
“You lived in a lost fragment of this city!” Goujon insisted. “You must know!”
Marigold leaned forward, very close to his face.
“Don’t you dare,” she said very quietly, “tell me what I must do.”
Goujon turned red. “Intolerable.” He stepped back, drew a pistol out of his jacket and waved it towards the prisoners. “You will take this seriously, Marigold the Sorceress.”
“Good luck with that,” murmured Lady Xiang.
Goujon’s arm swung around rapidly and he put the gun to Lady Xiang’s temple. “Shall I kill one of your minions to demonstrate how serious it is?”
“I’m not a –” Lady Xiang began, but stopped talking when he shoved the weapon hard against her skull.
Markonic stirred. “Goujon, no. Not her. We need her.”
“We need this city,” said Goujon.
“Wait,” said Marigold. “I give in. The paperwork I’d have to fill out if I lost an employee is unbelievable. Let her go, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
Lady Xiang’s eyes flickered briefly in Marigold’s direction.
“Goujon, don’t do it!” Markonic snapped. “I’m warning you!”
“You’ll tell me what I want to know anyway,” said Goujon. His finger tightened on the trigger.
A gunshot cracked. The soldiers started, raised their bayonets.
Goujon gasped once and slumped to the ground with an enormous hole in his chest. His pistol clattered down next to him.
“I was getting sick and tired of that man,” Markonic said, lowering his own gun. He turned to a confused-looking soldier. “Corporal, please note for the record that Representative-on-Mission Hercule Goujon was tragically killed in the crash of the Grand Guignol, and his body was never recovered.”
“Y-yes, sir,” said the corporal, belatedly recovering his wits and saluting.
Lady Xiang started forward, but Markonic’s pistol swept back around to cover her. “Not so fast!” he barked. “I’m not suddenly your friend. I simply don’t care about some worthless ancient ruin; I care about getting my men home. To that end I need you all alive as hostages, and you in particular, Lady Xiang Bettancourt.”
Lady Xiang looked exasperated. “Are you kidding me? We’re still doing this?”
“Deadly serious. How would your precious King Rudolf react if something happened to you?” Markonic’s eyes narrowed. “He’d probably die of a broken heart, wouldn’t he?”
At those words, the beast-lady recoiled. Her expression changed in a heartbeat. “He –” She stammered, her face suddenly flushing crimson. “What are you talking about? I am m-merely His Majesty’s advisor.”
Marigold stared at her. “Wait a minute. You weren’t just… You two were already…?” She clapped a hand to her mouth. “Oh my goodness. This explains so much.”
“Don’t interrupt,” said Markonic. “You, Lady Xiang, are extremely valuable to him, and therefore extremely valuable to me. Now don’t worry, everyone will be fine, as long as everyone remains cooperative. We’re going to leave this place to the ice and proceed to the Aquila, where you will arrange to transport us all to Fort Liberty and surrender to Trimarine authorities.”
“Where did that girl go?” he demanded suddenly.
Michelle had vanished at some point in the confusion.
“I –” The corporal looked uncomfortable. “Sir, I may have briefly let go of her when you shot, uh –”
The floor under their feet trembled.
The bricks began to glow, first dull gray, then a bright white that was hard to look at. The white light quickly spread out over the cityscape, the roads and structures of Mist of Morning glowing brilliantly, all the way to the horizon.
A great golden light washed upwards from the far-off perimeter of the city, closed over their heads, and faded into invisibility. A distant rumble was rising into a roar of moving air.
“Michelle!” Ray shouted. Michelle was slumped unmoving over the control pedestal. He shoved an unresisting soldier aside and ran towards her.
“What’s going on?” Markonic demanded, rounding on Marigold. “What did she do?”
“I have no idea what she did!” the sorceress flared. “Though I might if you idiots hadn’t barged in waving your guns around when she was about to explain everything. And for all that you still couldn’t even keep track of a sixteen-year-old girl? Honestly, this is the worst-run hostage-taking I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.”
“The sky,” said one of the Trimarine soldiers fearfully.
They looked up. The sky was getting dark.
The roar of moving air faded away and was gone. The stars came out, but not like the stars on an ordinary night. These stars were clear, and hard, and bright, and spilled across the jet-black heavens in uncountable thousands.
Silently the stars began to revolve about the sky, and presently a great blue-and-white sphere rose above the skyline of Mist of Morning.
The soldiers began to whimper and drop to their knees.
Markonic stared and stared. “We’re looking up at the Great Sea. What sorcery is this? Where are we?”
“A magical conveyance,” said Marigold in wonder, “from whence the great hero looked down and saw all the lands of the world, buried in miles of ice from pole to pole. Something like that, I bet.”
Lady Xiang looked at her.
“What?” said Marigold. “I pay attention sometimes.”
The great blue-and-white sphere rolled above their heads and descended towards the horizon again. The sun rose next, blindingly bright, and they all had to shield their eyes. Not far past the sun was the Moon, and the Second Moon. The two satellites ascended into the sky until they were directly overhead, one a brilliant yellow-white sphere of craters and seas, the other a tiny, glowing dot to its side. Their stately motion drifted to a stop.
Then, slowly, the two satellites began to grow.
Michelle stirred, and opened her eyes.
She was lying in an enormous and regal four-poster bed, on the softest mattress she had ever experienced, enfolded in heavy, warm blankets. Her assistant’s robes were gone, and she was wearing a simple white shift. The room around her was suffused with faint gray light from no obvious source. She felt as light as a feather, and the noise in her head was gone, gloriously gone.
A place in the wall where she had seen no door opened up. Beyond it, just a silhouette in the dim light, was a tall female figure in a long cloak, with curiously elongated arms and legs.
“I see you are awake, Michelle,” said Reve.
Michelle stared at her like a rabbit at a hawk.
Reve shook her head. There was none of the odd two-second lag from last time. “I am so sorry, my child,” she said. “For everything I’ve done. It was so difficult for you, I realize that now. I wish there had been another way. But…”
She broke out into a brilliant smile.
“My child,” said Reve. “It’s all over. You can rest now. Your work is done.”
Reve stepped over, sat on the side of the bed, and with her strangely long arms enfolded Michelle in a hug.
She’s a villain. Xanadu said she’s going to destroy the world. She manipulated me all my life. I can’t trust her.
Michelle broke down, bawling like a baby in Reve’s arms as the woman stroked her hair and whispered soothing words in her ear.
It took several minutes to cry herself out, and at the end of it Michelle was left exhausted and faintly embarrassed.
“Do you feel better?” Reve said, a small smile on her beautiful face.
“A little,” Michelle sniffled. She looked up at the tall woman. “Who are you really? Are you, are you my…” She could barely articulate the word. “…my m-mother?”
“These things are complicated. But, yes. In every way that matters,” she said.
“Then how c-could… How could you abandon me? Why?” Michelle begged.
“You, of all people, deserve an explanation,” agreed Reve.
She stood up.
“Get dressed,” she said, gesturing towards a cabinet at the side of the room. “Then come find me at the end of the hall. I’ll tell you everything.”
* * * *
Reve looked at Michelle in surprise. “That’s a little flashy, isn’t it?”
Michelle stood in the doorway, her cheeks coloring a bit. The outfit she had found when she opened the cabinet was certainly different from her usual dowdy robes: all in black, leather boots and sheer leggings under a short, flouncy skirt and a tight, corset-like top that left her shoulders bare and flattered what little figure she had. The rogue thought but I kind of really like it flitted through her head before she could pounce on it and keep it from escaping.
“This was the only thing I saw in there,” she said.
Reve shook her head. “The cabinet produces whatever clothing its operator desires. Well, I suppose that sorceress was bound to rub off on you a little bit. Anyway, please, come on out.”
She waved Michelle over. The doorway opened onto an open patio, surrounded by a railing; Reve was sitting at a table set for two in its center. The patio was in turn surrounded by the brightly glowing plain she had seen in her vision, and the great bulk of the Moon hung overhead, pouring yellow light down on them.
It’s not a dream this time, is it.
The only difference from her vision was that this time, the horizon was not flat. The blazing white towers of a city stood a few miles away.
Michelle gestured at the city. “Is that…”
“What you call Mist of Morning, yes.” Reve leaned back. “In reality, the missing piece of Lux Aeterna.”
“And Lux Aeterna is…”
“What you call the Second Moon.”
Of course. I’m on the Second Moon. That is definitely how today was going to end up.
“Wait a moment. I came here with…” Michelle had been about to say “my friends” but that really didn’t seem like the right way to describe them at all. “…Some people,” she finished. “What happened to them?”
“They are safe. And no, that isn’t a euphemism for anything. They’re fine. Sit down, my child.”
Cautiously, she pulled out a chair that seemed to be made of wire, and did so.
Reve lifted up a small kettle and poured hot, astringent-smelling tea into a cup in front of Michelle.
“I don’t even know where to start asking,” Michelle said, instinctively picking up the cup and inhaling its sharp, minty scent.
“Wherever you like,” said Reve. “We have all the time in the world, now.”
“Okay,” said Michelle. “Then how about starting at the beginning? What was this all about?”
* * * *
Once upon a time (Reve said) there was a war in Heaven.
None would have predicted the war before it happened. Mankind had united, and built a great System. A system that turned the energy of the sun into a sorcerous power that could make humans virtually omnipotent. The Moon itself, blazing with eternal, magical glory, was the broadcast beacon of that sorcerous power, and Lux Aeterna, an artificial satellite, was its control mechanism, managing and steering that sorcerous power.
But two factions grew up on Lux Aeterna. One faction believed that the sorcerous power should be freely granted to everyone, and individuals allowed to decide how they would use it. The other faction believed that man was irresponsible, and so the sorcerous power had to be carefully controlled for the safety of all.
And so there was a war.
“It pit brother against brother,” said Reve, “parent against child.” She looked down sadly. “Husband against wife.”
“Who won?” Michelle asked.
“As is the nature of war,” Reve answered, “nobody.”
The war swept to the home planet below and only ended when the world itself had been tilted over on its axis, plunging it into an ice age. Humanity reached the brink of extinction, only beginning to recover when the glaciers started their retreat thousands of years later. And on Lux Aeterna itself…
“I am the only one left,” said Reve.
“Which faction were you?”
“Does it matter at this point?” She smiled tiredly. “But judging by results, perhaps those who thought the sorcerous power needed to be carefully managed had the better argument, don’t you think?”
Michelle leaned back in her chair, mind whirling.
“Where do I come into this?”
Reve sighed. “At the end of the war, the last gasp of the freedom faction was to destroy the ability for the sorcerous power to be controlled from Lux Aeterna. They pulled Mist of Morning off the surface of this satellite, and flung it down to the ice-covered Earth. And since then, we… that is to say, I… have been cut off and alone. Watching the suffering of man, helpless to act.”
She leaned forward, looking intense. “My child, I could not sit by any longer. It was bad enough when man was just a group of starving tribes, facing its end. But now, I watch the Earth and I see new nations emerging, building terrible weapons, even pressing sorcerers and sorceresses into their service – those few who, through accidents of birth, still have the ability to access this world’s power. It will all happen again. Unless it is stopped.”
Michelle felt a little nervous. The outline of something was coming into view, and she didn’t like it.
“Through pure chance,” said Reve, “a fragment of Mist of Morning came within my reach. In order to bring the city home, that was my starting point. I needed someone in place to influence events. Someone who would do what was needed, instinctively, simply because of who they were. The right person in the right place.”
The right person in the right place…
“That was me, wasn’t it,” said Michelle. “Even though I wasn’t trying to do any of this.”
“Yes. You didn’t need to. Your influence was enough.”
“So thanks to my presence, the castle returned to Archimedea, and then a great expedition was mounted to Mist of Morning, and it ended up back here.”
“So what am I, really?” Michelle cried out suddenly.
Reve looked unhappy. “You are a human being just like any other, Michelle.”
“But where did I come from? You said it was complicated.”
“This will be difficult –”
Reve took a deep breath. “You were created, fully formed, on the doorstep of that castle ten years ago.”
Michelle clutched her head and was silent for several seconds.
She looked up at Reve. “What was the point of all this? Of everything you did to me? What are you going to do now that you have this place back in one piece again?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Reve said. “Bring the world under control. Ensure that the sorcerous power never harms anyone again. Ensure that the nations of the world do not bring about another catastrophe. You’ve seen enough killing, in the past few months. Don’t you want it to stop? Michelle, we didn’t create you out of cruelty. You have to understand what we were trying to do.”
Michelle stared at her.
“You just said ‘we,’ Reve,” she said.
Reve stared back.
“I don’t believe I ever told you what my name was, Michelle.”
The air seemed very cold, all of a sudden.
“Who have you been talking to?” began Reve.
“Excuse me! Hello! Is this thing on?”
Reve and Michelle both turned in surprise.
“Marigold??” Michelle gasped.
A window was floating in the air, and in it was Marigold’s face.
“Assistant!” the sorceress began grandly. “There you are! I’m glad to see you’re well, and –” Her eyes widened. “Oh my goodness. I love the new look. It’s so you.”
Michelle felt herself blushing again. “Thanks. Um, so… what happened to you guys?”
“Well, after you flaked out back there the whole city flew up in the air and traveled to the Second Moon…”
“Yeah, I know that part.”
“But on the way something zapped us and we woke up in a cell. A very nice cell, to be clear, but I really don’t have time for such things. Happily, my newest minions were able to organize a jailbreak.”
“We are not your minions,” said an angry male voice from off-stage. Markonic? How the heck did she manage that?
“Shh. And a good thing I had them around, too. Really, sending automatons to stop us?”
Michelle turned and sent an accusing look towards Reve.
“The guard machines were nonlethally armed,” said Reve. “They would not have hurt anyone.”
“Well, they’re definitely not going to hurt anyone now,” Marigold said with finality. “So, I have an important question for you, assistant.”
She held up the magical sword Xanadu.
“How long have you known this thing could talk?”
Michelle was momentarily stunned, but then she turned to Reve, and saw her expression reflected on the other woman’s face.
“Amadeo,” Reve whispered.
Marigold looked back and forth between the two of them.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Hold on. Assistant. Don’t tell me this is your…?”
“That sword! Where did you get that!” Reve snarled.
“Oh my goodness. She is, isn’t she? Yes, the way you splutter angrily at me is very familiar. The acorn certainly didn’t fall far from that tree, did it?” Marigold looked Reve up and down. “Although it did fall from quite a height. You must be Reve, right?”
“Tell me!” shouted Reve.
“Oh, well, I found it at a junk sale. Something about it just said ‘buy me,’ you know? But I’m not really a sword person so I left it in the attic until I needed to find a present to get my assistant here out of one of her periodic funks.”
Michelle’s right eye twitched. A lengthy and arduous quest, huh?
“By the way, Reve, you should be aware that your daughter gives new meaning to the expression ‘moody teenager,’” Marigold added. Hatefully, she even made little quotation marks with her fingers as she did so. “She’s a handful.”
“Marigold!” Michelle cried.
“It is so weird, I am hearing double with you two both yelling at me. Anyway, so on the way back here to the control center we detoured to pick up our weapons and wouldn’t you know it, this sword starts talking to me. Told me all kinds of crazy stuff, about this scheme to control the world through this whole sorcerous lunar whatever-it-is? That’s audacious, Reve, I’ll give you that, but take it from a fellow world conqueror, maybe you should work your way up before going for the whole prize.”
Reve looked like she was about to explode.
“That bastard,” she hissed. “Playing my game against me the whole time.”
“Anyway, it’s told me a bunch of useful information about how to work the controls for this place since you so thoughtfully left them activated, assistant, and – what?” Marigold looked at the sword. “Who? Oh, yes, she’s right here. Do you want to –”
She recoiled in surprise as the magical sword Xanadu disintegrated into a cloud of blue sparks.
The blue sparks flowed directly through the strange window and gathered together right in front of Michelle. They grew brighter, larger, harder to look at. She had to avert her eyes. Then, all of a sudden, the light was gone, and a man stood there.
The man was very tall, the proportions of his arms and legs similar to Reve’s. His body was draped in all manner of colorful cloaks and jackets that hung almost down to his knees. His long, silver hair was combed back into a ponytail, and he had a neatly trimmed beard and moustache of the same color on his handsome face.
“It’s all over, Reve,” he said.
Michelle had never heard that deep, calm voice, but she knew it by heart.
“Amadeo,” said Reve steadily. “You have some nerve showing your face here again.”
“I wasn’t going to let you carry out this plan. Not once I opened my eyes and understood the consequences. You know that.”
“You have no right --”
“Wait a minute!” Michelle interrupted desperately. “Who are you? No… I know who you are, don’t I.”
Amadeo bowed his head.
“Yes. We worked together to create you, Michelle. Reve and I, the last survivors of Lux Aeterna. We knew this place had to be reactivated in order to save the world. Reve just wanted to use the sorcerous power to control the Earth. But I realized that was wrong.” There was an unhealthy light in Amadeo’s eyes. “Why only keep Earth the way it is, when we could go a step further and make it a better place? Our enlightened use of the sorcerous power could improve so many lives, right so many wrongs…”
“You betrayed me,” snarled Reve. “You have risked the lives of everyone on Earth with this reckless –”
“You manipulated me!” cried Michelle. “You wanted me to come up here all along!”
“It was necessary!” said Amadeo. “You have to understand –”
“Excuse me! Hello!” Marigold waved. “I hate to interrupt this touching family reunion, you three clearly have a lot of catching up to do, but there’s just one more thing that needs to be resolved.”
“Yes. Right,” Amadeo said decisively. “Marigold, we need to act quickly and ensure this place is secured. You know the plan?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I do.”
The look on Marigold’s face…
An odd, wild hope coursed through Michelle.
Amadeo seemed to notice that something was wrong. “Then shall we proceed?” he pressed.
“No, I don’t think so.”
The man looked briefly startled, and then angry. “Marigold, this is not what we discussed,” he began.
“It may not be what you discussed. I seem to recall you making a lot of assertions and just sort of assuming I was going to cooperate. Frankly, I don’t like either of your plans.” Suddenly, Marigold’s voice grew very cold. “In particular, I don’t like the bit where either of you sit up on this moon playing God and presume to dictate the future of every single other human being that will ever live.”
“Marigold,” said Reve suddenly. “Let’s compromise. If you want temporal power, it’s yours. Over the entire Earth, I don’t care. I just want to ensure the world is safe, that’s all.”
“Yes, take the Earth!” Amadeo countered. “Let’s just use this place’s power for the good of everyone. That’s all I ask.”
“Someone else tried to offer me that same deal a while back, too. You’d think people would learn.”
The city on the horizon began to glow fiercely bright. Columns of light stretched upwards into the sky.
“What are you doing?” Amadeo demanded.
“Okay, so,” said Marigold. “Apparently the way this place stays up is, it’s always falling towards the Moon but, get this, it’s also moving sideways as fast as it’s falling, so the Moon’s surface drops away below it and it goes all the way around. That’s very clever! Did you two come up with it?”
“No,” said Reve, grinding her teeth, “we did not come up with it.”
“Oh, too bad. Well, anyway, what happens if I use this flying city thingie to slow it down a little?”
Now Reve and Amadeo were both staring at her in horror.
“Please stop this, Marigold,” Amadeo began.
“You don’t understand what you’re doing!” Reve cried. “If you destroy this place the sorcerous power will be uncontrolled! Anything could happen!”
She’s doing it. She’s bringing them together, even if just in shared dismay at how reckless and destructive she is, some part of Michelle’s mind noted. Marigold truly is a peacemaker.
The sorceress shrugged. “Yeah, but what are you going to do?” She turned to address Michelle. “Now, assistant, if you could scarper back here right away, please, so we can leave before this thing crashes into the Moon, and we’ll be home in time for dinner.”
“We won’t wait forever!” called Markonic’s voice from out of view.
“We will wait as long as I say we will wait,” Marigold said firmly. “No minion left behind.” She leaned forward. “But just between you and me, assistant, I’d consider it a personal favor if you wouldn’t waste too much time, yes? Ta.”
“Marigold!” shouted Amadeo.
“No!” shouted Reve.
The window vanished.
Michelle turned. Reve and Amadeo were both frantically poking at glittering panels floating in the air.
“I’m completely locked out,” said Reve. “I can’t do anything.”
“Me too,” said Amadeo. “It’s just like she said. That damn untrustworthy sorceress!”
Michelle stared at the two of them. Then she began to laugh.
She fell to her knees, giggling helplessly, as Reve and Amadeo both stared at her.
“That was your clever plan?” she managed through tears. “The right person in the right place. Marigold. Of all people. What were you thinking?”
Amadeo opened his mouth for an angry retort.
Then, abruptly, his expression faded. He slumped into the chair opposite Reve, and in that moment he looked very, very old.
“Apparently,” he said, “I was not thinking.”
He bowed his head.
“Reve,” he said, “I’m not going to apologize for doing what I thought was right. But I am so sorry for how I hurt you.”
The tall woman stared at him for long moments.
“I’m not going to apologize for doing what I thought was right, either,” Reve said at last. “But I’m sorry for annihilating your body and entrapping your spirit in a sword.”
She reached out her hand. After a few seconds, Amadeo took it.
“Go on, Michelle,” Amadeo said.
Michelle blinked at him. “Go on and what?”
“Go on home.”
Amadeo nodded. “Our war lasted too long. It must not hurt one more person.”
“We don’t belong in this era, my child,” Reve echoed. She clutched Amadeo’s hand tightly in her own. “Leave us and create your own world.”
Michelle stood and stared at them incredulously.
“You monsters,” she said.
The two of them recoiled, surprised.
“You selfish monsters!” she shouted. “All my life I wanted nothing more than to find my family. I don’t care if I’m some kind of construct and you’re weird magical ghost war criminals from the moon or whatever. You are my mom and dad. And now that I’ve found you, you’re going to just throw your lives away in front of me and tell me to go on like it’s nothing? How could you?”
The tears of laughter were now tears of rage.
Michelle ran forward and threw her arms around the stunned pair.
“I’m not losing you again. And that’s final.”
There were several seconds of nothing but her occasional sobs.
“Again the waterworks with this one,” Amadeo said finally.
Reve sighed. “We weren’t very good parents, were we?”
“No,” said Amadeo. He patted Michelle on the back. “But I think she came out all right in the end.”
Michelle stood in her bedchamber at the very top of the tallest tower of the Ancient Flying Castle and gazed out the window as she brushed her hair.
The year had been busy, and strange. It had started with watching from the portico high atop Mist of Morning, fleeing into space as Lux Aeterna, the Second Moon, crashed into the original one.
The glowing yellow sphere had descended smoothly and silently towards the Moon’s surface and when it struck, it splashed. There was no other word for it. It carved an immense trench in the brightly illuminated yellow rock of the Moon and threw up a vast plume of glittering rubble that rose in a beautiful rosette pattern, thousands of miles above the surface.
Meteorites had showered down on the world for weeks. Now, a year later, the remains of the Second Moon had gathered into an elegant ring around the first one; she could see it out the window of the tower, floating in the sky above the bay like a jewel.
Michelle had watched the Second Moon fall while holding hands with her parents. Amadeo and Reve. Even after so many months, she found it hard to really believe that they existed. They were strange people, for living so long. They would share jokes she could never understand, speak in languages no one had ever heard, talk about things that had been gone for millennia as if they had taken place just yesterday.
But then I’m a manufactured spy whose purpose was to win a war that was over ten thousand years before I was born, so who am I to judge?
Marigold hadn’t judged, at any rate. Michelle had tried to explain the situation to the sorceress, who had just looked blank and asked what it had to do with her personally.
“Well… nothing, I guess,” Michelle had said eventually.
“Then who cares?” the sorceress had answered brightly, and that was the end of it.
I don’t know if I ever understood you, Marigold.
She hadn’t seen the sorceress too frequently lately, since Marigold had abruptly turned the Ancient Flying Castle in its bedraggled, crumbling entirety over to Michelle and decamped to Mist of Morning on a permanent basis. Below the ringed Moon Michelle could see the ancient city floating in the sea where it had finally touched down several miles outside Archimedea, still glowing brilliantly and triggering endless complaints from locals upset about the city shining into their windows at night when they were trying to sleep.
The question of who technically “owned” Mist of Morning, the Archimedean government or Marigold, had been rather fraught – especially when it turned out that, the moment the Second Moon had been destroyed, Marigold had recovered all of her sorcerous power – but the issue had eventually been smoothed over by the two parties tacitly agreeing to never bring it up. Marigold had restored some goodwill by using her powers to ensure that the Aquila and its personnel made it back home safely from Low Memnon, and by allowing the kingdom’s researchers free reign of the city. Dr. Leng in particular spent much of his time at Mist of Morning. Michelle suspected that there were other reasons besides natural philosophy for that, but she tried not to think about the details too much.
Michelle turned away from the window and looked in the mirror. Perfect, she thought, to her surprise. When had she stopped hating the sight of her own reflection in a mirror?
“They’re arriving, Michelle!” called a voice from below.
She put down the hairbrush and hurried out of the chamber.
* * * *
“Oh, your hair,” said Reve as Michelle arrived at the bottom of the stairs. “You’re not going to leave it like that, are you?” Tut-tutting, she hurried over to Michelle’s side, licked a finger and started straightening out locks of hair on Michelle’s head, disarraying all her hard work.
“Her hair is fine, dear,” said Amadeo. “I’m not fond of that outfit, though.”
Reve stood back. “Hmm. That’s a good point. My child, are you sure that’s the best choice for an occasion like this?”
Michelle had on the same elaborate clothing that she had acquired on the Second Moon, that day a year ago. For this occasion, she had accessorized with low-heeled shoes and a long black cape.
“These are my favorite clothes, Mom,” Michelle said. “I think I look great.”
Mom. Deep down inside, she still loved saying that.
“You look like you were raised by a sorceress,” Amadeo sighed. “Are you wearing it for that foolish boy of yours?”
She blushed. “No.”
He shook his head. “You can do so much better, Michelle.”
“Now, now,” said Reve, “I married a fool and it worked out fine in the end. Come on, then, let’s not keep our ride waiting.”
Michelle took their hands in hers and they headed for the front doors of the keep. She glanced up at her mother and father on the way, both dressed in their finest formal wear, and couldn’t help smiling.
Her parents were over two feet taller than she was. It made her feel like a small child sometimes. But that could be comforting, too.
Outside the doors, the Sleigh of Terror was parked in the middle of the yard. Marigold the Sorceress, wearing a stunning black sequined evening gown instead of her typical leather attire, was waving energetically from the driver’s seat. The griffins, who were looking fatter every time Michelle saw them, were busily gnawing at the vegetation which had begun growing in the castle’s bailey lately.
“The happy family!” she said. “How lovely. See to our guests, minion?”
The door of the sleigh opened and Ray Vincent stepped out, wearing a dazzlingly white formal suit complete with tails. He held the door open as Michelle’s parents approached.
“Sir, ma’am,” he said, nodding.
Amadeo glowered down at him, but eventually nodded back. The two of them climbed into the middle row of seats in the sleigh.
Michelle walked up to him. “You clean up pretty good, Ray,” she said.
“Thanks. Oh, you’re wearing that thing!” Ray said. “I mean, uh, you look nice.”
“Heh, I remember the first time you saw it. You were just staring for, like, five minutes.”
Ray had the rare grace to look embarrassed. “Well, um. I know it was really rude, but, it was just, uh…”
“Don’t apologize,” Michelle said shyly. “It was also kind of flattering. I never thought of myself as a person who would be worth staring at.”
Marigold cleared her throat loudly. “Could you flirt awkwardly on your own time, please, minions? We have a schedule to keep.”
Michelle blushed again. Doing that a lot lately. “Coming, Marigold.”
They climbed into the rear of the sleigh. Marigold cracked her whip, the griffins beat their powerful wings, and the Sleigh of Terror was soon rising above the castle walls and heading into the city, towards the royal palace on top of the central hill. It wasn’t usually as brilliantly lit as the city of Mist of Morning floating offshore was, but it was giving a good account of itself tonight, illuminated by electric arc lamps and draped in red-and-white bunting and Archimedean flags.
“Aurcturo will be meeting us at the palace. He despises these kinds of events, but I made him see reason in the end,” said Marigold.
Aurcturo, Michelle noted.
The sorceress was still talking. “One can make one’s excuses, I suppose, but not for missing a royal wedding. How romantic,” she sighed. “To see one of my minions go so far.”
“You probably shouldn’t call Lady Xiang a minion to her face tonight,” suggested Reve.
“Are you kidding?” Marigold said gleefully. “I’ve been looking forward to doing that for weeks. I have it all planned out. And really, if she didn’t want that to happen she shouldn’t have invited me.”
Michelle leaned back contentedly, sinking into the cushions. The Sleigh of Terror might be evil and spiky on the outside, but by God was it ever plushily upholstered on the inside. Her hand stole into Ray’s.
She glanced out the other side of the sleigh, towards the glowing ancient city floating in the bay underneath the ringed Moon. Things were certainly changing.
She stretched out her free hand and opened her fingers wide. A tiny flame danced in her palm for the briefest moment, then went out.
Yes. They’re changing, for everyone.