Starblaze and Blasterfire: Part Ten
Cassius looked back behind him from the porthole of the Faeriewing as Eoxan-zortha faded into the distance. Yaxal was laughing up in front – even the grimness of their mission couldn't keep him from being excited to pilot the fastest ship the city's engineers had yet envisioned.
At and around the table in the main room, a dozen soldiers sent by Princess Moonstone waited. Other ships were following as quickly as they could. Jory sat at the table as well, running a polishing cloth over his blaster and his metal arm. The fist on that arm was clenched so tight that Cassius could see the robotic mechanisms underneath the silvery covering. He walked over to lay a hand on Jory's shoulder. "She'll be okay. She's tougher than old boots."
He'd never realized that Jory had cared this much about her.
Jory just laid his head on the table, looking more pathetic than Cassius had ever seen him, even before he'd found out that the older man was Jormund Steelclaw. "Is that even tough enough? Jalitha's powerful enough to attack Eoxan-zortha, and Bea basically slapped her in the face. She'll be angry. And when people that powerful get angry, bad things happen. I've had to go stop those things before – I know."
Cassius said, "We'll save her. And when she sees us she'll start complaining about how we took our own sweet time and how she could have gotten herself out easier."
Despite his joking, though, he couldn't get Jory to smile.
The plan was that the Faeriewing would lead with a stealth attack, quickly joined by the other ships. Cassius and the rest of the crewmembers of the Aurora were supposed to use the attack as a distraction to sneak into Jalitha's hideout, rescue Bea and the other prisoners, and get them out. The Space Faerie should arrive any day – perhaps she'd help them actually deal with Jalitha for good.
The terrain out here was getting rougher – they were following the faint traces left by the pirates' ships. Those types of space brigands didn't tend to care how much smoke they spewed, but today that had been turned against them. They'd lead them straight to the sorceress, since Jalitha would want to keep them close, to make sure they didn't turn on her. But the pirates were all she had now if she wanted to attack Eoxan-zortha again. Cassius hadn't asked, but he was certain that Ulami hadn't gone to all that trouble for a spell that could only be used once.
Then they saw the scout-ship posted on a jagged hill. Cassius wasn't sure if they'd been seen or not, since the Faeriewing was designed to blend with the sky and the surface of the moon, but it didn't give chase. An electric ripple ran through the room. They were close. One of the more grizzled soldiers said, "I bet they're in the bowl valley up ahead – that'd be where I'd put an encampment."
Cassius reiterated the plan. "We'll land right up ahead, then. Suroxano can shield us. That's our best bet, even though Jalitha might be able to sense it. Sneak past the pirates, sneak into wherever Jalitha's headquarters are, find the prisoners, release them, sneak out. Sneak is the key word here. You're only to use force of arms if an alarm is sounded."
Trinian shouted up in the front, "Yaxal, I don't care how much fun you're having, it's time to land!"
Losing the battle visor had actually made Trinian a little more assertive – perhaps he felt like he had something to prove, but whatever it was, he'd certainly stepped up as a commander.
Commander. Cassius looked down at his overalls, which he'd worn over his spacesuit. He had a gold star pinned to one strap – the sign that he was in charge of this mission. He was deferring to Jory and Trinian when it came to the logistics, but the overall result was up to him, since it had been his idea.
And he was a janitor who could make wrenches light up and a city glow. If only he knew some more spells!
But there'd been no time to learn more spells. Not if he wanted to find Bea alive. So he'd have to go in with what he had, and hope to high heaven that that would be good enough.
The ship settled down with a quiet purr – nothing like the rattle of the Aurora. They all gathered around Suroxano – he'd explained to Cassius that the essence of smoke worked wonderfully when used to make an invisibility spell. It tingled a little, and Cassius thought he could smell the smoke. It wasn't coppery like wood smoke, though, or bitter like exhaust. There was a strange fragrance to it, almost a spicy feel – it was the smoke of lava and meteorite collisions. When he looked around, he realized that everyone else under the spell seemed somewhat foggy and indistinct.
Yaxal merely sighed. "Can't wait to get behind the controls of that again – it's got to be what flying on a shooting star would feel like."
Cassius hushed him. "We're only invisible, not inaudible! Quiet!"
They climbed up over the top of the ridge and looked over the rim to what the old-timer had called a bowl valley.
Cassius knew that he wasn't the only one who gasped.
All through the circular valley, ships were landed, tents were pitched, and fires for cooking were sending smoke up into the endless night. While noise didn't travel as well in Kreludor's thin air, Cassius could clearly hear the sounds of shouting, swearing, and brawling as the pirates kept themselves busy.
A tall, slim Aisha snorted. "Barbarians."
Across the valley, the mountain peaks reared up higher around the dark entrance to a cave or tunnel. And out of that tunnel flowed a stream of blackness, which Cassius realized was more shadows coming out to do their mistress's bidding.
The thought chilled him to the bone. Cassius said, "Zaraq – head over to about halfway between us and the cave. We don't want them to find the ship. We'll run for it as soon as you set off the distraction."
Zaraq saluted, grin stretching ear to ear. "Yes, sir!"
As he headed off with two soldiers – all with loaded backpacks – Cassius worked with the others to pick their way down to the edge of the plain. It would be easier to cross on flat ground, as soon as the pirates weren't paying too much attention.
The timing couldn't have been more perfect. As soon as they reached the valley floor, the roll of fireworks that Zaraq had carried from the Aurora – along with supplements from Eoxan-zortha – exploded into the night. The racket of the pirates subsided for a second, and then doubled as they all charged to see what was happening, leaving the valley floor almost deserted. Cassius urged, "Go go go go go!"
They took off as quickly as they could. Trinian murmured, "I hope Zaraq gets out of there okay. I'd hate for something to happen to the little weirdo." He was gruff, but Cassius understood the genuine worry behind his words – it was the same worry he felt. He'd been more than eager to provide the distraction, but could he get away in time?
He was good with wicks, and he had the gigantic blaster he'd made. He would be fine.
At their speed, it didn't take too long to reach the slope to the cave. Dark, creepy – it had to be Jalitha's lair. She was a sorceress who was trying to take over a city. It was perfect for her. Cassius imagined her walking to the entrance of the tunnel, scowling down at the chaotic rabble below, wreathed in shadow like his companions were wreathed in an invisibility spell.
Then, above them, they heard a screech. Suroxano gasped – at the sight of the normally unflappable Grundo's dismay, Cassius's stomach dropped. "It sensed us! It sensed the invisibility spell! Prepare to fight!"
Cassius pulled out his wrench, crying "Arralux!" Jory grabbed a blaster in each hand, aiming at the first two of the river of wraiths that poured out of Jalitha's fortress.
Suroxano ran to Cassius, pushing something into his hand. "This is a stronger charm – it will hide you better, but it only works for one. The prisoners must be saved – go, now!" He raised his staff and let loose a stream of fire, sending the shadows scattering.
Cassius looked around – the blasterfire was streaking the sky. From a point on the horizon, another burst of fireworks shot up. Zaraq had apparently gotten creative with his orders, and it might keep the pirates away for long enough, Fyora bless him!
He had to go. This had been his idea, and it was up to him to see it through. Without getting to the prisoners, this wild mission would have been in vain. The reinforcements would be here soon – he forced himself to believe that all his friends and allies would be fine, that he'd taken care of them, that they weren't doomed because of his own idiocy.
There was nothing else for it. Using the cover of the fight and the spell, he dashed up the slope. The shadows streamed past him, either not noticing him or not caring.
But the dark mouth of the tunnel gave him pause. There was only a faint bluish light from the inside. He wished he could use his wrench as a torch. But that would give him away. He had to be brave. He had to be strong. He, the janitor with two spells to his name, was the one who was supposed to go save the day.
There seemed to be something wrong with that.
But he couldn't let himself believe that. He had to keep going. Because if he didn't find a way now, no one would. It was all up to him.
He wished in his head for Fyora's guidance and Mira's blessing – those were the only two people he could think of that could save him now.
To be continued...