Blanrus was standing on the sterncastle of the Vis watching them. He cursed angrily when he saw the Claw start to move. How in the Nine Hells had they gotten so well organized, he wondered? Had Altman helped them that much? The fancy fop said he hadn’t given them but one or two days worth of instruction, but it didn’t look like it. It looked like the Knights had received a lot more instruction than that. He cursed Altman’s betrayal and ground his teeth in fury. He hurried down the stairs to the top deck then down the ladder to the deck below that.
He found Illene in the captain’s cabin where he’d left her bound hand and foot. “Your brave friends are still after us,” he informed her with a sneer. “But don’t get your hopes up. I can still perform the ceremony right here, no matter how far from Harpel we are.”
“I told you,” Illene protested wearily, “I don’t know any ‘Knights of Gaia’. I’d never even heard of them until you told me about them.” She had long since gone past the point of fear and was now resigned to the inevitability of her death. She knew the evil mage would kill her out spite if the ceremony was interrupted or prevented from taking place. She had no hope. “I don’t have any friends. There’s no such thing in Carrzulm.”
Blanrus laughed shortly and left. He strode up the short passageway to another door and went in. The room was against the forward hull of the ship, giving it the shape of a half-circle. Two men were constructing a makeshift altar in the middle of the room. They flinched as he came in, but after a single glance to see what progress they’d made, he ignored them. He crossed the room to another ladder and climbed back to the top deck.
He emerged in a semi-circular cabin the same size as the one below. Two bulging windows, one on either side of the beak-like ram, let the pilot see out into space, and also, gave the ship the outward appearance of having eyes. Banks of charts lined the walls and the ship’s wheel occupied the center of the tiny bridge. “They’ve got the Claw moving,” he said without preamble. “They’re still following us.”
Bashaak gave the mage a steely look. “I’m aware of that,” he snarled through bruised lips, his face still puffy from the battering he’d received at Aaren’s hands. “We’ll have to fight them ship-to-ship.” Unzar’s death had forced him into the role of pilot, a position he viewed with disdain.
Blanrus shook his head. “Impossible. The Claw is twice the size of the Vis,” he said adamantly. “They’ve got heavy catapults where we’ve only got two ballista. And not enough men to man them anyway. If they ram us, they’ll tear through us like tissue paper.” He thought it over, examining the possibilities. “The Vis is more maneuverable, we’ll have to use that to lose them.”
“Lose them? Have you forgotten where we are? They can see us for a hundred leagues in every direction,” Bashaak snapped irritably. “How can we lose them in space?”
“In the asteroid field,” Blanrus smiled evilly. “We can get through spots were the Claw would be chewed to pieces.”
Bashaak considered it slowly. “It wouldn’t be all that safe for us either,” he said finally. “There’s a lot of loose rock out there.”
Blanrus peered out the window at the gigantic asteroid field that surrounded Harpel, the remains of a destroyed moon. It was so large it was visible from Gaia. The groundlings there called it the ‘Pebbles’. The priest was right of course, it wasn’t safe to stray off the channel marked by the buoys. But the mage didn’t plan on being on the ship long enough to care about such things. The moment the ceremony was completed his soul would be swapped with Prince Urdan’s, then the Vis and everyone on board could be ground into hamburger for all he cared.
“There’s more than one way through the field,” he lied. He pulled down a chart specifically prepared for an eventuality such as this and handed it to Bashaak. “Stick to the course laid out on here and we’ll be safe, but they won’t.” He jerked a thumb back over his shoulder at their pursuers.
Bashaak examined the chart as if it was a deadly snake. How much further could he trust the mage, he wondered? He hadn’t had a chance to cast Art before Blanrus came up so there was no way of telling if the mage was lying or not. Blanrus had kept his word about everything so far, but the priest didn’t delude himself that that state of affairs would endure for long. He still wasn’t sure what the ceremony would accomplish. The mage had hinted that it would give him instantaneous power over Harpel, but he’d refused to explain how. The fact it had to take place on Urdan’s birthday could mean any one of half a dozen different things. Bashaak swore to himself in frustration, it didn’t look like he had any choice. He’d just have to keep his eyes open and be ready for anything. “Fine,” he said smoothly as if nothing were wrong. “It’s lucky you had this.”
“Luck had nothing to do with it.” Blanrus couldn’t help bragging. “I’ve planned for every contingency, every possibility, every twist of fate, everything. That chart represents five years of painstaking effort and scouting; waiting, waiting for exactly the right moment to be used.” He felt rather proud of himself for that little speech. Every word of it was absolutely true, just not in the way Bashaak would interpret it. “I’ve thought of everything.”
“If you’ve thought of everything then why aren’t those riffraff dead by now?” the priest sneered.
Blanrus bridled angrily at the criticism. “It doesn’t matter! We had the warehouse to fall back on, then the Vis after that. And now the chart will lead us to safety. I’ve thought of everything!” he insisted. “Everything!” He raised his hand to cast deadly Art at the mutinous priest then stopped short. If he killed Bashaak there wouldn’t be anyone left to pilot the ship, none of the men were trained. He’d have to take over himself, which would keep him from casting the transference spell. He was good but he couldn’t do two things at once.
Bashaak watched the emotions playing across the mage’s face with cold eyes. He nodded with bitter satisfaction when Blanrus lowered his hand. “So . . . I’m not so expendable after all.”
Blanrus calmed himself with an immense effort, his blood running cold at the thought of how close he’d come to throwing away everything away. “We all have our place,” he muttered. “You do your job and I’ll do mine.” He didn’t trust himself to say more so he turned and stalked out.
Bashaak watched him go without comment. The situation was getting trickier by the moment. He touched a pocket on his robe, hearing the crackle of the parchment scroll tucked away there. The word of recall inscribed on the scroll was his ticket out if things turned deadly. If Blanrus was willing to consider killing him, perhaps it was time to simply steal the Prize and use the scroll to transport himself back to home.
He fingered it again then shoved it away. Not yet, he decided. Not yet.
He unrolled the chart and examined it carefully, fully aware it almost certainly contained a trap of some kind. Soon, he thought to himself, soon.
Mira saw the Vis change course and head into the surrounding field, spurning the safety of the buoy markers. She gasped in horror. “Aaren! They’re going into the asteroids!” Down on the main deck, Garrick saw it too, his face slack with surprise.
“I see it,” he replied grimly. “We’ll have to follow them in.”
“It’s no worse than what I had to go through on Heraup,” he told her.
“You were one person controlling a tiny ship,” she protested. “This is totally different!”
“If we don’t catch them, they’ll kill Illene and all this will have been for nothing,” Horace interrupted, climbing up to the aft castle to stand with them. “Are you going to let that happen?”
Mira sagged against the wheel, her knuckles white on the spokes.
“No . . . I can’t let that happen,” she admitted finally. She nodded at Aaren. “Ready when you are.”
He turned immediately. “Ten degrees port! Bosun, slow us to one third.” Garrick blanched but relayed the orders and the crew started taking in sails to slow the ship.
“Aye Captain, speed, one third.”
Mira understood how he felt. She didn’t like the idea either. The dangers were all but overwhelming. Aaren and Elric had uncovered numerous stories in Blanrus’ journals concerning the fate of ships that tried to sail through uncharted asteroid fields. It seemed to be an obsession of his and he took grim delight in chronicling the details of their demise. She tried not to think about it as the Sky Hawk followed the Vis away from the safety of the channel. If only we were closer, she thought, then we could jump over and board them to keep them from going in any deeper into the asteroids. Her eyes narrowed in concentration for a moment then she turned to Horace.
“Are we in firing range of the Vis?” she asked eagerly.
He shook his head without looking. “The catapults aren’t any good at this range.” He nodded at the imposing distance between the two ships.
“What about the ballistae?”
He cocked his head warily. “Maybe . . . with a lot of luck. But it wouldn’t be enough to do any major damage. That’s what you need the catapults for.”
“But could we use it to cripple them?” Mira pressed him.
Horace looked at her. “What have you got in mind?”
“Cripple who?” Elric asked as he joined them.
Horace pointed at the enemy ship. “Them,” he said. “Mira wants to know if we can cripple them, but I don’t understand what she’s talking about.” He looked back at her. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“Very funny,” she grimaced. “I’m glad you’re here, Elric. What I’m talking about concerns you too.”
He lifted one eyebrow. “Go on.”
“Remember how you put a fireball on the mind flayer ship? You cast the spell on the ballista bolt, then after it hit the ship it exploded.”
“I remember,” Horace growled, wincing at the painful memory. “It almost turned me into a crispy critter.”
Elric nodded. “I remember. But that wasn’t an ordinary fireball. It was a delayed fireball, one that didn’t go off right away. It had a time delay on it.”
“So I don’t have that spell in any of my spellbooks. I cast it off a scroll, and it was the only one.”
Mira’s shoulders sagged. “I was hoping we could cripple their wings the way the Sky Hawk was crippled and force them out of this asteroid field before we get ground to pieces.” A small asteroid, perhaps half a ton, caromed off the ship at that moment as they left the safety of the marked channel. The ship shuddered from the blow and Mira’s grip tightened on the wheel. “Like that,” she said faintly.
“How about flasks of oil?” Aaren asked. “Tie the flasks onto the bolts with oily rags. Set the rags on fire and launch the bolt. When it hits something it’ll break the flask and start a fire. That ought to slow them down.”
The four companions exchanged a glance in silent consternation.
“That . . . might work,” Horace admitted slowly. “It certainly can’t hurt to give it a try.”
“Make it fast,” Aaren urged him as another asteroid hit the ship with bruising force. “We won’t last very long out here. I don’t even know what they’re thinking going in here in the first place,” he added, indicating the Vis.
Horace nodded agreement and hurried forward. A short time later the first ballista bolt leaped away from the Sky Hawk. It went wide and the crew fell to, readjusting their aim. A sharp crack announced another shot fired moments later, but it missed too. The third and fourth shots also went wide.
Blanrus stood on the sterncastle of the Vis watching the Knights futile efforts to stop him and laughed with delight. “Go on you fools,” he hissed under his breath, “waste your time with your feeble efforts. By the time you hit the ship, I’ll be long gone. You’ll kill what you think is me, but it won’t be! It’ll be Prince Urdan. I’ll be on Harpel, in his body, ruling everything!”
Another bolt sprang out while he ranted and he watched it with barely constrained contempt, waiting for its path to take it away from the Vis. But it didn’t fall away. Instead, it hurtled straight for him, suddenly growing larger with horrifying speed. He fell back in fear as the bolt slammed into the tail section, rocking the whole ship. An instant later he heard the roaring crackle of flames. He backed away from the smoke and heat, tight-lipped with fury.
“Fire! Fire in the stern!”
The cry swept through the ship. In no time the entire crew was on deck fighting the blaze. Blanrus had kept only a skeleton crew on board and there weren’t enough men to crew the ship and fight the fire at the same time. Without the crew, Bashaak didn’t dare try to fly the ship alone through the uncertain path shown on the map. The Vis slowed and began to drift.
Blanrus saw the two men who’d been working on the altar fighting the fire and bellowed in fury, “Get back below decks! Finish that altar!”
“But milord, the fire–”
“To the Abyss with the fire! Move!”
The men cringed away from his wild-eyed anger. “Aye, milord, Aye.” They hurried away, glancing over their shoulders as they went, not sure which was more dangerous, the fire or the white-faced mage.
Blanrus forced his way through the men to the railing and looked down. The flames had already destroyed all the canvas on the tail section and were eating away at the wooden booms beneath. He cursed bitterly and quickly cast Art. A freezing cone of cold roared out from his hands. Ice met fire in an explosion of steam. The flames died, leaving ice-coated booms and frozen tatters of blackened lacewing canvas as the only evidence of the fire. The crew was stunned.
“Back to work!” the mage yelled at them. “All of you!”
The crew broke and ran before the barely constrained menace in Blanrus’ face. Within seconds he was alone again. He glared across the distance to the Claw. It was drawing closer. He could see them dancing around slapping each other on the back.
Elric almost fell from Horace’s mighty blow, but he took it in stride. Aaren’s idea had worked perfectly. The Vis had slowed and turned, heading back to the main channel. He grabbed a speaking tube to Katrina’s navigation room.
“Did you see that?” he laughed. “That was a one in a million shot! It was beautiful!”
“I saw it,” she giggled. Her voice changed. “But we still can’t catch them,” she protested. “The best we can do is keep them in sight, and we won’t even be able to do that once they clear the asteroids. They’ll be able to go to system speed or star jump before we can.”
Aaren clenched his fists behind his back. “One thing at a time. Right now let’s just concentrate on getting back to the main channel. We can worry about other things later.”
Jon backed him up immediately. “Yeah. Let’s get out of these asteroids and see what kind of damage you’ve done to my ship,” he pleaded in a wounded tone. “The sooner, the better.”
Aaren looked at Mira. “My ship?” he mouthed to her. She giggled. He shook his head and watched as she and Garrick followed the Vis back toward safety.
Soon, the Vis and the Sky Hawk were back in the main channel. They picked up speed quickly. The channel turned and twisted in broad loops and sweeping curves, much like an ordinary river and the ships had no problems moving at top speed through the safe areas marked out by the buoys. The Vis wasn’t as maneuverable as it was before the fire, but its speed was still a match for the Sky Hawk.
An hour later, the Vis left the channel and moved beyond the influence of the asteroids ahead of the Sky Hawk. “They’re out of the field,” Aaren announced. “They can use the star engine to jump or anything else they want.” His shoulders drooped. “We’re losing them.”