Garyl deemed it a good sign that he saw people running away from the fire. It meant that he would be the only fool running into a burning building.
The messenger, if Lytha had sent it, had arrived too late. Fortunately, none of her agents had paid with their lives.
“What happened?” he asked when he came upon the first of three fleeing figures.
The young man in a blue tunic and wide-brimmed hat drew a dagger and waved it frantically when he saw Garyl’s dark figure approach in the evening light. But his face bore the look of a young boy who had just awakened from a nightmare. He blinked in confusion, and his dagger wavered when he realized that Garyl had stopped approaching.
“Nevermind,” Garyl said, recognizing the signs of dragon fear on the young man’s face. “Just keep running.”
The lad needed no prompting. Neither did the three other youngsters—skilled apprentices all—that fled past the night folk without giving him a second glance. They would come to their senses shortly and find themselves filled with shame, but they would still have their lives. Fortunately, that meant that the cause of all this chaos would also live.
Garyl walked toward the fire steadily, arming drawing his sword but leaving his shield strapped to his back as he advanced. He scanned the scene as he advanced, searching for others fleeing the blaze, but found nobody. The skyship itself groaned as the flames leapt higher along its battered old hull, but didn’t show signs of breaking down. After all, it was built to handle the hottest of fires.
The roar of the fire clashed with the sound of the tide as he drew closer to the scene. He used his free hand to cover his face with the corner of his cloak as the smell of smoke reached his nose. The heat drew sweat from his brow but did little to slow him down. He didn’t know how he would die, but he suspected that fire wouldn’t do it.
The door had already come off its hinges, blown outward as the air inside the ship expanded in the heat. Garyl stepped over it to find that much of his job had been done for him—most of Falden’s guards lay sprawled on the ground, burns and scars running across their faces and arms. The old man himself cowered on the ground, having attempted to flee toward the dock and escape across the beach, but somebody blocked his way. As Garyl peered through the smoke, he saw the perpetrator he had expected—the young girl whom Falden’s thugs had chased down during his last visit.
“You always said you knew how to control me, Falden,” she said, her raised voice easily carrying over the crackle of flames. “Prove it now.”
“You don’t have to do this,” the old man pleaded. “I know how to reward power. We can be partners. I’ll give you an equal share—more than equal, if you’d like! You’d be surprised at how highly I value my life!”
The girl leaned forward, a smile on her lips. She didn’t show so much as a bead of sweat, and the embers that flew through the air and landed on her skin hissed into nonexistence immediately. “Would I be surprised?” she asked. “I want to take what means the most to you, Falden. If that means your life, then so be it.”
“No!” Falden scrambled backwards, scooting his bottom along the ground as he pushed himself away on his hands and knees. His flight led him directly toward Garyl, and the newcomer stepped past Falden so he was between the old man and the girl.”
“Where are the others?” shouted Garyl over the roar of flame.
The girl provided no response. Instead, she looked at Garyl as though he had grown an extra eye in the middle of his face.
“The others like you,” said Garyl. “Where are Falden’s other slaves?”
“Why do you care?” asked the girl. “Go away, or I’ll go through you to get to him.” She pointed a long, slender finger at Falden with those last words.
“There are others like you!” shouted Garyl. “Help them!”
“There’s nobody like me,” replied the girl.
She opened her mouth, and Garyl saw flames burning in her gullet. For a brief moment, the flames in the room seemed to die down, but the temperature got even hotter.
“Okay,” Garyl murmured, “we really don’t have time for this.”
Garyl held out his free hand before the girl attacked. He twitched his fingers in jerky, erratic movements and made a noise that sounded like the crack of a frozen lake. The air in front of his hand took on a bluish tinge and a blast of frosty air whipped forward. The flame around Garyl flickered and then disappeared, and the fiery blast that almost came from the girl’s throat died away in a shriek of pain. She staggered backward and almost fell over, but managed to keep her feet.
“I will kill you for that,” she barked.
“Probably,” Garyl replied. “But if you don’t save the other slaves, I’m going to cast another spell and disappear. Then I’ll just hide in a hole somewhere and wait for you to die of old age. Your vengeance just means I get to read some new books in private for a while.”
The girl gave no retort to Garyl’s threat, but instead turned her gaze toward Falden. “And what of him?”
Falden had slowly begun to creep away from the standoff, but Garyl whipped his sword around and placed its tip at the old man’s throat. “I’m supposed to kill him anyway. Save the others, and I’ll take care of this little nuisance for you.”
“Why don’t you…hm.” Something changed inside the girl as she tried to think of a retort. He shoulders slumped and her anger seemed to subside. “Fine. They’ll be out in a minute.”
The girl darted around one of the makeshift walls in the upturned skyship, leaving Garyl and Falden alone.
“Please, sir,” Falden begged. “Save me. She’s obviously mad.”
“Angry,” Garyl corrected. “She’s not mad. Just angry.”
Garyl raised his sword and waved it in a circle above his head. He repeated the same crackling incantation he had recited earlier, and a blast of cold shot all around him. In a matter of seconds, the fire in the building had completely subsided. All that remained was the smell of smoke mixing with sea brine and the film of sweat that the blaze had brought out on both of the men remaining in the room.
“Let me guess,” Garyl said as he pointed his sword back at the prone Falden, “the group that I saw running away from here came in much like I did the other day—except they opted for the direct approach. Your guards came to defend you, but that meant that one of them had to take their eyes off the girl.”
“Tiane,” Falden said. “She’s always been more trouble to me than she was worth.”
“You have no idea,” Garyl replied. “So Tiane got loose, then scared away the wizards. But that got her all riled up. Your guards tried to deal with her, and then the fire started.”
Falden nodded in agreement with Garyl’s account.
“How old is she?” Garyl asked. “Twelve? Thirteen?”
“I…I don’t know,” Falden insisted.
Garyl sighed. “You really don’t make it easy to see you as tolerable, do you?”
“I…I gave you her name!”
“Well, I supposed that’s something.” Garyl cocked his head slightly as Tiane led approximately a dozen children of her age or less toward the front door. “And there it goes again.”
“Please,” Falden begged, “take me prisoner. Throw me in a dungeon. But leave me alive.”
“No!” shouted Tiane. She glared at the children she was leading toward the exit, and they quickened their pace in the same sort of panic the wizards had shown. “He dies, or—”
“Or you’ll hunt me to the end of time itself, or whatever,” Garyl interrupted. “But don’t worry…you get your way tonight.”
“What?!” Falden cried. “But I’m helpless! You can’t!”
“Believe it or not, I’d prefer not to,” Garyl said. “But you were too careful to stay out of the reach of the law, Falden. If I try to turn you into the authorities, both Blackwood and Lorinth kick you back and forth to avoid dealing with the hassle until you eventually escape. I wasn’t sent to arrest you—I was dispatched as an assassin. And I would have killed you during my first visit if Tiane here didn’t catch my attention.”
Falden swallowed hard. His eyes darted between the tip of Garyl’s blade and the girl whose fury had deprived him of his guards.
Garyl cast his gaze upward toward the engine on the ceiling. “A skyrock core. If you wanted to get rich, you didn’t need to steal children off the streets. Just salvaging that could have earned you a fat purse of gold and jewels to the right buyer. But I’m guessing you don’t even know how skyrock works.” He wiggled his fingers and felt energy welling up in the air around them. “See, it’s got a special magnetic charge. If exposed to the right level of electricity, it becomes repelled skyward. Blackwood’s best engineers had to come up with huge clockwork machines designed to control the currents so they would fly at just the right altitude. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of those machines. But let’s see what I can do anyway.”
Garyl spoke a brief incantation, and lightning flew from his fingertips. It struck the metallic remnants of the engine, and they began to glow white.
“You might want to get out of here,” he said to Tiane.
The floor shook as the engine activated and the remnants of the airship struggled to push itself skyward once again. Tiane glanced at Falden in satisfaction and then followed the others out the door.
Falden tried to get to his feet, but the tip of Garyl’s sword pressed into his throat, drawing a bead of blood and keeping him on the ground. The ship, on the other hand, didn’t provide the same courtesy. It shuddered and took off, carrying a large chunk of earth with it and lilting badly as the engine carried Falden’s entire fishery skyward.
“Do you remember what you said about the tales of the dark folk?” Garyl asked. “We tell similar stories about humans. And we have a lot of time in our hidey-holes to think about ways to kill you.”
Garyl repeated his incantation and sent another bolt of lightning into the engine. It hummed loudly and sparked as the white glow became almost blinding.
* * *
From the ground, Tiane watched the strange shape of the half-skyship as it rose to cloud level. It flew impossibly through the sky despite its massive amount of structural damage, awkwardly shuddering as though it were ready to fall back to earth at any moment. Then, with a great roaring sound, the damaged engine spit forth a blast of fire that consumed the entire vessel. Tiane watched emotionlessly as a fireball tore through the sky, presumably taking both Falden and the night folk with it.
“Stupid demon-thing,” she said to the night folk’s spirit, as she was sure it was on its way to whatever afterlife awaited such creatures. “I could have taken care of it without turning it into a suicide mission.”
“But that would have lacked the drama,” came the night folk’s voice from nearby.
Tiane whipped her eyes back down to earth. The night folk’s dark skin and clothing provided him with some camouflage in the darkness, but the only real reason she hadn’t seen him was because she didn’t expect him to escape the doomed ship in time.
“How did you—?” she began.
“Magic,” he replied. Then he extended a hand toward her. “If you stick with me, maybe you’ll learn some of it for yourself. And maybe I’ll learn a bit more about you.”
Tiane snorted and walked along the beach, passing the dark figure without taking his friendly hand. With a shrug and a last glance at the skyward explosion, the night folk followed her.