Eylee had been excited, and then nervous, but somewhere into the fourth hour of watching the gnome and halfling dash around the deck of the ship embroiled in “last minute” preparations, she had grown bored and her mind began drifting. Fortunately, she was distracted shortly after by a curt exchange between Asharae and Roadyle.
"If you wish to die a very painful death, feel free to touch it," said Asharae, "but I suggest not."
Eylee caught the dangerous tone in the young woman's voice right away and her ears had perked up. Glancing to her side, she saw Asharae clutching the Scryona to her tightly and Roadyle standing above, watching her. Asharae's patience had been much shorter than Eylee's and she had settled at the edge of the clearing to examine the globe soon after the halfling's preparations began. Eylee shifted uncomfortably, still not quite at ease with being so near a Teir'dal. To think it was her own vision that had convinced the party Asharae could be trusted!
The wood elf had to admit, Asharae had yet to wrong any member of the group any further than being nasty to them. The dark elf did little but study the Scryona, trying to unlock its secrets. All that Asharae knew was what she had observed in the V'Nols' studies; that it would start glowing when they neared a tear between this dimension and another, and that somehow it both destroyed and drew power from Void energies. The high elf seemed to be offering to help her discover more, but she doubted Asharae would take him up on the offer.
"You would kill me in front of your friends?" asked Roadyle with a quirk of his eyebrow. "It seems they already only barely tolerate your presence. I doubt that would do much to change that."
"They aren't my friends," snapped Asharae, "and I am the one doing the tolerating. They need me more than I need them."
"How altruistic," said Roadyle. "Somehow, that doesn't strike me as your nature."
Asharae glared. "I don't have to wish you dead for the Scryona to kill you," she said, "just having your unworthy high elf blood."
Roadyle nodded. "So it's cursed," he said, "very interesting. Well, if you change your mind, I know more than just a thing or two about magics of all kinds, and I am sure I could help you learn about it without needing to touch it. That is, if you are willing to accept my help." He bowed and drew away from her. Asharae caught Eylee gazing at her and made a face.
Eylee looked down and then up again, saying, "Maybe he could help."
"Well I don't need his help," muttered Asharae. Her fingers trailed over the surface of the orb. Eylee found herself caught by its glow, and the two young women gazed at it silently.
Eylee ripped her eyes away and tried to recall the vision. It had been more feelings then images, and words of power. They drifted nebulously in a fogged part of her mind, but through it all she had the overpowering sensation that this young woman was going to give everything she had to save a great deal of people. Her gaze softened as she stared at the Teir'dal, and though the sensation unnerved her, she was filled with pity and gratitude for a woman she knew she should have loathed. Asharae's eyes flicked up at her. The single lock of white in her dark black hair played over her violet eyes and casually she blew it out of her face. Eylee swallowed heavily and said, "Thank you for tolerating us."
Asharae looked away and nodded. "Well," she said, "it will no doubt teach me much about using the Scryona, and when we're done, I'll have exactly what I need to draw on its power for my own means." Eylee nodded, but the dangerous tone in the Teir'dal's voice fell flat, and the wood elf felt a smile twitch at the side of her lips.
A strong wind blew through the Misty Thicket, rustling the tree branches and picking up tufts of white down from the heads of dandelions and carrying them toward the suspended craft and those who worked on her. Twiddy was standing at the bow of the Cloudskipper, gesturing toward the scattered party below him.
“On my count!” he said. “Release the ties!”
Eylee glanced from face to face. The halfling had assured them all that once the ship was going, he and Fiddlewiz would be able to stop it long enough for the group to climb in with them, but with the way the wind was blowing, she wasn't so sure. The craft already strained against the ropes binding it in place, as if struggling to get free, causing the trunks to which it was bound to creak and crack.
Twiddy had positioned himself on the bow of the ship, gripping one of the lines tightly that bound the large, banded balloon to the hull of the craft. "Fiddlewiz, are you ready?"
A short and somewhat muffled voice responded with, "Get 'er going, Twiddy!"
Twiddy gazed down at the people below and held out his hand. "Count of 5! 1... 2..." The wind howled and rushed past them, almost snapping the rope from Eylee's grip. "3...4... 5!" The assembled group unwound the knots in the ropes they had been assigned to. Their relative strength and speed made the ropes drop at different moments, and the ship lurched from side to side as tension gave way to release. The rope slipped through Eylee's hand, burning her skin ever so slightly as she released her grip. There was a shouting from across the clearing. Kruzz muttered and stomped, jumping in place.
"No release! Stupid rope! Stupid, stupid rope!" He screamed and pounded his fist against the tree as the ship strained to be free of his, the final, rope, and the tree that it was attached to began to bow, a cracking sound filling the area. This caused Kruzz to panic further as he lashed his hands out against it. Fortunately, Bayle had been stationed at the next tree over. The plainsman closed the distance between he and the troll in only a few steps, pulling a knife from his boot as he did. He rapidly sawed the rope and the fibers popped one by one before the line snapped and the ship lurched away from the trees, pulled in the direction of the now roaring wind. The craft's wings began to flap, but their effort looked futile as the ship lurched forward chaotically, at the mercy of the elements.
Eylee waited for a moment, uncertain of what to do next. Then Twiddy's voice came through on the wind, shouting, "Catch up! Hurry! If you truly want on this thing, you had best move your feet because I don't think we're going to be able to stop!" As he yelled, he released a pair of rope ladders that managed to dangle just low enough to be reached.
One by one they began moving and running for the ladders. Eylee made for the same ladder as Kaltuk, Nurgg, and Asharae. She noticed with panic that the dwarf was not nearly tall enough to reach the bottom of the rope. He ran very close to his ogre friend, however, and said, "Nurgg, though I'll be asking you not to tell this story later, please, if you could, give me a boost!"
The pair of them reached the ladder first, running beside it as it was swept along beneath the boat. The ogre leaned down and managed to stumble only slightly as he lifted up his friend and launched him upward. Kaltuk began climbing the ladder, nimbly for one as stout as him. Asharae reached it next and Nurgg gave her a small boost.
She cried out, "Watch your hands, ogre!" as he pushed her up by the bottom. By the time Eylee reached him, she noticed that his gait had slowed and his chest was heaving.
"Come, little one!" he barked at her. She let him hoist her up and reached desperately for the ladder, fingers entwining with its rough fibers. Step by step, she climb toward the ship, struggling to keep her balance as the wind pushed it one way and the climbing of those above her caused the ropes to shake and shimmy.
She looked down to Nurgg, her heart leaping as she noticed he'd fallen behind. "Nurgg!" she called.
His run had become a lope and every moment, the distance widened between him and the ladder. They were also, she noticed, swiftly running out of clearing. The thickly wooded Misty Thicket approached swiftly. Eylee felt an upwelling inside of her as she stared at her friend. Opening her mouth, she began to steadily chant an old canto about a tireless wanderer. Suddenly, Nurgg sped up, overtaking the ladder in moments.
His eyes were wide as he looked up at her and muttered, "Clever bard!"
The ladder lurched downward as he grabbed hold, and for a moment, she was terrified it would break. Then she noticed Roadyle beside her, not clutching any of the ropes but rather levitating in the air. He was glowing softly and chanting. With a wave of his arm, the ladder slackened, as if nothing at all were weighing it down.
"Hurry," said Roadyle. "Especially you, ogre. The spell will only last so long!" At that moment, the ship tipped upward and began gaining altitude as its wings beat furiously. For a moment she lost her bearings as the ladder reoriented itself, but then she was able to begin climbing again.
As Eylee ascended, she looked over to the other half of the team and was relieved to find Illisia, Kruzz, and finally Bayle making their way up it to the deck of the Cloudskipper. She returned to her upward trek, watching as Kaltuk disappeared onto the deck, then Asharae, and finally it was her own turn to drag herself off the rope and onto the mahogany of the deck. Kaltuk was standing there, ready to take her by the arm and help her regain her balance.
The dwarf glanced around suspiciously as he eased Eylee up, taking in the length of the boat. "I don't like this at all," he muttered. "Dwarves are not meant to be in the sky. We are meant to be in the earth."
"Well," said Twiddy, stepping up behind them and clapping a hand on the dwarf's back, "you can now boast that you're the first flying dwarf."
Kaltuk made a noise that said he was not impressed and began leaning over to help Nurgg up. Eylee drifted over to where Illisia and Bayle stood at the side of the boat, coming to a stop beside Bayle.
"Amazing," said Bayle. His voice was breathless with wonderment as they gazed at the tops of the trees roll by below them. Illisia nodded wordlessly, but her eyes were rich with emotion. Below them, the Thicket was spread out like a great sea of green that shifted constantly in the wind. Eylee let out a long sigh of contentment and then smiled, thinking of all the places this ship could take them next.
The Cloudskipper drifted through the early morning air, which hung heavy with fog through which shafts of dawn penetrated in glowing patches. As the morning moved toward day, the mist slowly thinned and separated until the air swirled with tendrils of smoky white water vapor. Eylee unwrapped herself from her cloak and yawned, the muscles of her arms and back crying out from the night spent in a less than comfortable nook of the flying machine's deck. Her vision was blurry, but it took her only a moment to figure out why she had woken. Nurgg was shaking her. She could vaguely remember having falling asleep against his side as they watched the treetops roll by and wondered at how it was they'd ended up so high.
“Nurgg?” she asked, voice slurred. “What's happening?”
“It is glowing,” said Nurgg, pointing toward Asharae. Against a far wall of the deck, far from everyone else, Asharae was curled up tightly and clutched within her fingers was a thin silken bag. Even from within the nest of silk, the Scryona was glowing strongly enough to create a bright orange halo against the mauve embroidery of the purse.
Eylee turned to tell Nurgg to wake Bayle, but he was already moving across the deck. She hadn't even noticed that he had gone, but the ogre was light enough on his feet that he had managed to stand up and cross half the deck without making much more than a patter. She went next to Illisia. The woman's eyes opened the moment Eylee stepped within a few feet of her, and the ranger rolled up onto her knees, hand immediately on her bow nearby.
“What's wrong?” asked Illisia. “What's happened?”
Eylee shook her head and said, “Nothing's wrong, but look!” She pointed to the Scryona. Illisia stood wordlessly and nodded, moving to Kaltuk. Eylee glanced around. All over the deck, figures were stirring. It seemed the chain had moved far enough along that everyone had either had someone to wake them or been woken by the commotion. Only Asharae was still asleep. Eylee knelt beside her, wondering how well the Teir'dal was trained to sleep through anything, snatching sleep wherever and whenever she was actually beyond the demands of her master and mistress.
“Asharae,” she said, at first quietly and then louder. Finally, she reached out and touched the dark elf on the shoulder. Asharae's eyes flew open and she sat up, clutching the bag more closely to her chest and breathing heavily. The young elf's eyes searched her face with confusion.
“Look.” Behind her, the others had assembled, and Twiddy, who had no idea what was going on, pointed toward her bag. “What's in there?”
Just then, an arrow pierced the wood of the side of the Cloudskipper with a thunk, landing just below where Kruzz was standing.
"Back!" shouted Kruzz, rambling off something longer in Trollish as he scrambled back and dropped down. After the moment necessary for everyone to register what had just happened, the whole of the group hit the deck. Not a moment too soon, as the air filled with small arrows decorated with colorful feathers that buried themselves in the wood of the ship. Twiddy crawled across the deck toward the helm, where Fiddlewiz was inside trying to work the gears of the ship to get them going again while remaining low and out of arrow range. Roadyle bowed his head and began chanting. When the next volley of arrows came at the Cloudskipper, heading directly for the balloon, a large red rune of warding flared in the air, and most of the arrows clattered off of it harmlessly.
"Who's firing at us?" asked Asharae, still clutching the Scryona to her breast. Eylee could feel her own fear reflected in the Teir'dal's eyes. Her pulse raced and her breathing was rapid.
"Those arrows look goblish," said Nurgg, grunting with displeasure as he eyed the closest shaft.
"Yes," said Illisia, eyes darting between them. "I caught a glance of one of the archers as we dropped. Definitely a goblin." As if on cue, a series of high shrieks filled the air from below them.
"I had hoped the mist might obscure us," said Bayle, "but it had to evaporate at some point." Below them, they could pick out piercing commands screamed from what must have been the goblins' leader.
"Even with the mist, we'd be fooling ourselves if we thought we were easy to miss," muttered Kaltuk, peering suspiciously around the boat.
"And then we'd have no chance of spotting them," said Illisia. As she spoke, she rose, pivoting on the balls of her feet as she unstrapped her bow and let loose three arrows in rapid succession, which were met with three corresponding cries of pain. She hit the deck again just as arrows flew past where she had stood moments before.
Kaltuk blinked, his jaw dangling. "Remind me to stand behind you in a scrape, lass," he said.
Illisia just nodded to him. Her expression was serious and set. Eylee had seen her in action once before, when Illisia and Bayle had saved her from the thugs at Harmon's Tavern, but Illisia had fought casually and without any care then. Now the Feir'dal understood how she had earned her nickname, the Hound of Zek, as the seasoned hunter assessed their situation and plotted the best way to get them all through it alive. Bayle gestured everyone in close to him. "Only Illisia's of any use up here," he said in a soft voice. "The rest of us are just targets waiting to be shot. Besides, the Scryona is glowing, so there must be a tear near here. We need a plan to get down there and close it." He touched his hand to the staff that was strapped across his claymore. Eylee gazed at the staff uneasily. The runes that lined its shaft were quiet now, but she could almost feel them pulse.
"I have an idea." They glanced over at Twiddy, who was crawling back on his hands and knees toward them. "Listen carefully, because I believe we only have one shot at it."