The first thing I did on the other side was draw a circle and run a tracking spell on Ayden Washington. Worked like a charm. "It's so hard being right all the time."
"You just keep telling yourself that, Harry," Fix said.
I turned around. "I thought you were staying behind with Lily."
"Easier to guard from this side," Fix explained. He lowered his voice. "Our observers say there's a battle underway—"
"Yeah, I figured. I'm guessing you're still deadlocked," I said.
"Summer can't move without leaving ourselves vulnerable to an attack from Winter."
I shook my head, the pull of the spell shifting as I did. "Has anybody ever suggested therapy as an alternative to all this inter-court bitching?"
Fix snorted. "They'd eat a shrink alive. You have no idea."
"Oh, I don't know; I know this wolf—"
Georgia bared her teeth at me. Yikes.
"Aaanyway," I said, and started trudging through the knee-high drifts.
The tracking spell was tugging me steadily in the direction of Arctis Tor. Surprise, surprise. I started suspecting Lily had slipped me a little something extra the second time her butterfly swooped over to an easier path over the less-than-friendly going. Unless you've got wings, a straight line is not the fastest way through rough terrain.
Mab's fortress was an ominous block of black ice. It was, predictably, situated near the top of the highest mountain in sight, contrasting starkly with the white snow even with sunset smearing shadows across the slopes. Like the lower jaw of some really big, really square-faced ogre who took extra care sharpening its teeth, a tower jutting up from its centre like the spear the ogre's skull had been impaled on.
Cheery. A gust of wind blew up a curtain of snow in our faces, obscuring the view. I put a hand out, steadying Thomas, whom I'd been helping over some of the rough bits. Manly pride or not, my brother was a city boy, not to mention having the shortest legs of all of us bipeds. If the looks Marcone—who was keeping his footing just fine—kept shooting us got any sharper, Thomas would be scooping his guts out of the snow banks.
"You want a hand down, Melanie, all you have to do is ask," I told him.
Thomas looked at Marcone and cocked an eyebrow. "You going to take that?"
"All things considered, it could be worse," Marcone replied philosophically.
"I suppose it makes sense. She is the stalker, after all."
"Thank you, Lydia. I'm glad to see someone appreciates the thought I put into these things."
"Not Cathy?" Marcone asked.
"Cathy's with the rest of the birthday party." I waved my hand at the Alphas trotting behind us.
"I'm still a little surprised you didn't invite Murphy along," Thomas said. Instead of this guy?
"Are you kidding? Do you remember what happened to Annie Hathaway in the movie?" I joked, my eyes sliding towards Marcone.
"Whatever you say, Mitch," Thomas said. At least, it sounded like Mitch.
"Careful, Tom," I warned.
Mouse was out front, breaking our trail. We were walking more or less in single file. In the event of an attack, I wasn't sure if being strung out like that would be a good thing or a bad thing. It probably depended on the kind of attack; so far, we were pretty much the only sign of life, though. I didn't know how much the cold was effecting the others—most of our party had fur coats, and I'd told Marcone where we were going ahead of time, so there was probably some Under Armor or something under his, well, armour. But I at least appreciated Lily's little heating-charm, dressed as I was in my duster and a 'Bigfoot doesn't believe in you either' tee-shirt. Hey, Bigfoot thought it was funny.
A few hundred yards out from the walls, Mouse stopped. Since I am not, all evidence to the contrary, a complete idiot, I stopped, too. I managed to signal the troops before we reenacted some slapstick pile-up, and we slunk up the last ridge to scope out our approach.
"Gate's open," Thomas noted unhappily. "And I don't see anyone."
"Gate's gone," Hendricks corrected. I snuck a glance, but Marcone didn't have his hand up Cujo's back, so it wasn't even ventriloquism.
"We sure Mab's not Annie Hathaway?" Thomas asked me.
"I dare you to say that to her face," I told him. For my part, I was more worried about the large beastie flapping above the black ice pinnacle than the absence of gates or guardians. Maybe the place was stripped because everyone was off sticking their tongues out at Summer. Maybe it was a trap. Maybe it was just ambiance. We'd find out soon enough.
"Shall we?" Marcone asked.
I stood up and stepped out into the clear space before the fortress. Warily, the others followed. Even this far away, I could feel the currents of magic bending around a seriously major working. There was a pulse and suddenly a black cloud rose seemingly right out of the walls. It hovered for a few audible beats, until I realised I wasn't just picking up on the rhythm of whatever ritual was going on. The cloud heaved and surged. Ponderously, it started moving towards us. Well. That couldn't be good.
Perversely, I took a breath of cutting wind and let it out in a whistle of my own, keeping my pace fast but even as long as the approaching cloud was content merely to hover ominously in the faerie dusk. A groan from my left told me when Thomas recognised the tune of Risseldy-Rosseldy, although the lyrics running through my head were actually to Wee Cooper o' Fife, which Eb used to sing sometimes.
There were about two hundred yards of open ground in front of the gate. My ointment paid off, letting us see through some typically dickish faerie maze in-between. We were only halfway across when the cloud descended on us, resolving into hundreds upon thousands of crows. I was getting sick of birds.
No way could I completely shield a group this big for any length of time. Instead, I aimed my biggest, messiest evocation of wind and force upwards. My focus on the tracking spell wavered, and I flung myself back into it desperately.
We broke into a run; the snow was thinner here, but like most good surprises, it didn't last. The four-legged contingent easily pulled even, bunching up around the rest of us. I was abruptly conscious that Marcone, Hendricks, and I were now the ones slowing the group down.
A sharp bark was all the warning we received before the bones started appearing underfoot. They were icy, some smashed, some melted, all but invisible in the snow, more slippery and likely to turn underfoot than the shadowy fragments of portcullis and grate. I flinched away from a crow diving at my face, and started whirling my staff over my head as I ran, praying I wouldn't fumble and sent it flying. Hell's bells, those things were huge.
The mounds of pale, mangled bones, piled higher and higher around and before us, were swept up in a sudden whirlwind with us at the eye.
Unfortunately, all that meant was that the mounds of pale, mangled bones surrounding the fortress were real. I tried not to quail, looking at the violent gouges in Mab's walls. Anyone—court, council, or god—who could have done this could stomp me; but then, Mab could stomp me, and one of them couldn't stomp me any flatter than the other.
I hadn't figured on being able to get the Alphas inside. I'd been fairly confident of getting myself inside one way or another if I needed to, but not everybody else. In the original plan, they'd have had to run around outside the fortress walls. It would have been a big circle, but size wasn't so much a factor.
As we hauled ass under the great midnight walls, I caught a whiff of something that made my bowels shiver. Hellfire. I was starting to have a bad feeling about this.
In places, the bones rose higher than the snow drifts we'd been trudging through. I kept my shield bracelet primed in case someone was lurking in murder-holes overhead, in the time-honoured tradition. Halfway through the tunnel, I felt a great, ringing, twisting snap, like someone had broken a dry stick inside the hollow of my chest. The tracking spell went dead.
"Crap," I said under my breath.
Everybody took that as a cue to look especially dour. Mentally, I cursed the bones clogging up the passage. If I tried to run through this, I'd break my ankle.
As soon as we emerged back into the falling night, something large came flying at my face.
"Go!" I shouted, ramming power through my shield bracelet.
The shield flared into a silver-blue part-dome when the claws hit it—the Semurgh, I presumed. One of them. Bullets followed, pinging off in ricochets: Marcone and Hendricks returning fire. A scream of pain and rage rent the air. It wasn't quite a wolf's howl or a raptor's shriek; the sound was at once very similar to one produced by a human throat and completely, unmistakably inhuman. It was the sound of something ancient, and powerful, and unused to feeling pain.
All the hairs stood up on my arms, and I froze like a rabbit in the grass.
"Harry?" Thomas called.
"Ye-eah, got it covered," I called back, keeping an eye on the angry Semurgh's silhouette overhead. "What are you guys still doing here?"
Someone snarled a curse, followed by the sound of icy bones skittering and crunching underfoot. The Semurgh wheeled and swooped down again, and okay, Bob was right, that thing was big. Bigger than anything else I'd ever faced down, Clifford the Big Red Dog big and built like a pit bull, covered in feathers that glinted with the same pale, brittle light as the bones piled in the last rays of the dying sun. The sky disappeared every time it spread its wings.
I pointed my blasting rod and let rip. "Fuego!"
I threw my weight behind the blow, but I don't think it did much more than piss the Semurgh off. The real effect was to build a sudden updraft beneath those gigantic wings. It forced the Semurgh up just enough that its claws just missed catching the others as they spread out around the circle the Alphas were running.
Also, I'd succeeded in diverting the Semurgh's attention. This would be an excellent time to have a plan. Plan. Right. This was not the monster I was looking for.
Too bad no one told the Semurgh that. It didn't corner very well, but it had a hell of a reach. I scrambled towards the clear space around the base of the tower where the first of the Alphas was just coming back around to complete the circle. Something raced past behind me, and I loosed another gout of flame skywards just to be on the safe side. Exposed, the Semurgh made another run at me.
It was working: the circle had sprung up into being around me; I could feel it. Everything was going according to plan, except for one teensy-weensy detail.
The circle was interrupted and then reformed again just as quickly, half a dozen wills intent on joining it. My target had just passed out of range.
Time to do something stupid.
"Is that all you got?" I shouted at the Semurgh before it, too, could fly away, leaving me stranded ineffectually on the ground. "I've met songbirds with more punch. C'mon, just a little something to dance to, I feel a number coming on."
Ponderous wings flapped overhead, threatening to knock me to the biting ice courtyard.
"Well?" I hollered up. "Is this all the more Mab's renting her courtyard out for these days? The lowering menace act is getting kind of old. Bird-brain! What're you so scared of? Don't think you can take me in a fair fight?"
I heard the scream again, filled with an ancient rage. Taunting was a pretty effective tactic against anything from sorcerer-megalomaniacs to faerie monarchs. You can pretty much goad anyone into taking pot-shots at you if you're offensive enough.
"Old Tomnoddy!" I threw in for good measure, even though it wasn't very thematic. "Crap!"
The Semurgh dropped into another freakishly fast dive, and I fought the instinct to duck, instead gathering myself.
"Veni che!" I shouted and rose into the air.
I used a low-power version of this spell on a regular basis to help me pick up the Scamp one-handed, especially when she was in full tantrum-mode. This time, though, I didn't bother being delicate: half-assing this one met getting reacquainted with Mab's courtyard, really close up.
I wrapped my limbs blindly around something cuttingly cold, doing my best not to let my staff fall from the withered fingers of my left hand. Despite its dog-like appearance, the Semurgh was covered in something less like fur and more like feathers or scales. Or possibly shards of ice; contact along the whole length of my body—skinny wizards have no natural insulation—I swear literally froze my thoughts until Lily's butterfly caught up with me and fluttered around my head, thawing them.
The Semurgh cried out again in outrage, still clawing its way upwards through the dead air. We cleared the walls of Arctis Tor just as the full moon broke over the the mountains of Winter, and staring stupidly up I got my first good look at the monster I was fighting.
Bob had been right: it was at least as big as an elephant. Vast wings unfurled above me, blotting out the faerie stars, limned by unearthly light. No wonder it had been doing all that up-and-down manoeuvring just now; with a wingspan as wide as a football field, even Mab's courtyard wasn't big enough for it.
I was clinging to the creature's long, trailing tail. Above me it writhed, and I suddenly found myself ducking enormous paw-swipes. I had a sudden flash of sympathy for how the mice Mister chases must feel.
I hunched down into my duster as best I could, allowing the enchanted leather to deflect what even poorly-lit, mostly-blocked glimpses revealed to be claws the size of scimitars. But that wouldn't do as a long-term strategy. The Semurgh wouldn't have to hit me too many more times to knock me off completely. I wasn't at my most effective with my arms both occupied hanging on for dear life, either.
The blows kept coming, and I peered through tail-feathers and monster-paws, looking for my opening. For just a moment, I locked eyes with the Semurgh. I felt my lips curl back, baring my teeth, and I snarled, "Forzare!"
I let go, let the blast of raw force push at me as much as it did the Semurgh and send me soaring out over empty air. Which quickly became falling through empty air
Again, I summoned the wind, this time for vantage. I scrambled to orient myself and locate Bogeys One and Two. Somehow, I needed to convince Bogey Two to turn around and fly back into my circle.
Below me, fae-birds were still mobbing Mab's courtyard, their riotous calls almost drowned out by the thrumming of their wings. The Semurgh was turning and putting on more altitude, clearly gearing up to take another shot at me.
I finally caught sight of Bogey Two over the mountains. Its pale, glacial colouration meant that it almost disappeared against the backdrop of the snowpack, except the iridescent flashes coming off the Semurghs' ice-feathers were the only hints of colour in the entire moon-bleached landscape.
That was all the more time the Semurgh gave me, and it was only the fact that I hadn't yet released the wind that allowed me to escape. I managed to judo the slipstream of the Semurgh's passage to shoot myself out of range. The Semurgh's body seemed to take a long time to go past, even at speed. I watched with horror as my staff clipped one of those great wings and fell spinning out of sight.
Sweat was actually forming on my brow as I took control of my trajectory, aiming myself at my real target. The Semurgh was hard on my tail; damn, but it could corner.
It was also faster than me. I felt the change when we broke out of the circle the Alphas were still running, hundreds of feet below. It didn't make my evocations any easier, but the real hitch was what even assuming hollow bones was still probably several tons of angry predator swooping down on me.
I shouted and summoned up a gust that would bounce me momentarily upwards against the pull of gravity as the monster shot by underneath me. But the Semurgh twisted in mid-air, stretching out a graceful forelimb to snag me with a claw.
If I'd been facing the other direction, I'd have been caught like a carcass on a butcher's hook, and that would have been the end of it. As it was, I found myself being pulled down into biting range. The Semurgh's gaping maw—anything with that many teeth that size and shape justifies the term; trust me on this—yawned beneath me like a pit full of monster icicles, and it didn't smell any too good, either.
Hell's bells, I gibbered, the terror rising up in me. Terror is great motivation, especially as long as your adrenal glands still have something in reserve. So it was mostly on terror and reflex that I shoved my right hand out in front of me and screamed, "Fuego!"
The Semurgh shrieked in outrage more than pain at the puny gout of fire this produced and convulsed, incidentally tossing me like a bean-bag. I hit something cold, but everything here was cold and at least it offered the promise of not falling to my death, so I hung on while I waited for my head to stop feeling like someone had struck a gong inside it.
The thing I was holding onto howled again and heaved. Oh, crap, I realised. I was hanging onto the back of the Semurgh.
I had just gotten around to wondering, Shit, what do I do now? when something the approximate size of a monster truck slammed into me and knocked me loose.
As I was frantically trying to gather enough focus out of panic, panic, I'm falling! to start my Buzz Lightyear performance again, I saw another winged figure sailing overhead. Well, I figured out how to get Bogey Two's attention. Apparently even in species that spawned asexually, you didn't mess with momma. But the baby Semurgh was still clumsy and had only managed to send me spinning off into the night like a Raggedy Ann doll instead of grabbing me and biting my head off.
There was enough lateral momentum in the resultant trajectory to give me a good head start on the angry flying monsters. I must have looked like a big, black bunny rabbit hopping around the sky, or the ball in one of those children's sing alongs: just follow the bouncing wizard. Whenever one of the semurghs got too close, I pushed off it for more altitude. It was easier than using the wind, which was important because I was running out of gas. Stupid, Harry. You should have made a flying potion. Except I'd have had to go back to my apartment for that, and I hadn't wanted to take the time.
I had to get the baby semurgh back into the circle. But keeping one eye on Artic Tor—or trying to—meant I only had one eye left to watch out for the flying purple people-eaters. Of course, I didn't know for a fact that semurghs ate people; but since Mamma Semurgh's maw was definitely capable of finishing me in two bites, I figured the question of whether it spat or swallowed was moot.
Unfortunately, the semurghs were not very interested in being led. I was going to be black and blue for a month after this, magically enhanced duster or no; I felt like a volleyball, or possibly Pong. As we neared Mab's battle-scarred fortress, I hoped fervently that the Alphas were still holding the circle in place.
One of the semurghs swooped in and raked me with its claws, sending me tumbling ass over tea kettle just as we crossed over the black ice walls. Exerting my faltering will to stabilise myself, I tried to decide whether the air had that peculiar still feeling that came with being in a circle. All I could sense right now was the ringing in my ears. There were probably too many people—or whatever—inside the circle with me to tell, anyway.
After a moment, I realised the only motion I could see was the flickering of Lily's butterfly. It had stuck with me through all my amateur aerobatics, although it hadn't kept my hands and feet from going numb.
Or my brain. I had to find a way to end this, and fast. I was looking the hell up, but neither of the semurghs were in sight, I was running out of juice like a kindergarten class after recess, and—
I felt my eyes widen. I reached out a hand to the butterfly. And then I had another thought.
Hitchcock. I looked up. And then, I looked down.
Both Semurghs were barrelling up at me like rockets with fangs. I was exhausted, half-frozen, tapped out. My only recourse was to let myself fall and hope I missed them on my way down.
I hoped really, really hard I was right about this. I reached blindly, hand and will, for Lily's butterfly, already shaping the spell in my mind.
Sudden warmth flooded into me through my left hand. I thanked my lucky stars, thrust my suddenly tingling right hand downwards, and roared, "Fuego!"
The effect was much better this time: a column of fire as wide as my shoulders erupted from my outstretched hand. Woa, that was more than I'd been expecting.
The Semurghs snarled and broke right and left, real Top Gun style. All they were missing were contrails. I just hoped no one had been directly beneath that shot.
No time to worry about that now. I summoned the wind to bear me after my quarry; the bitter air was nothing more than a balmy breeze against my raw face. Lily's fire filled me with the heat of a roaring bonfire and the summer sun. I felt like I ought to be shining more brightly than the moon.
The semurghs howled, and the deep, old outrage shook even the confidence of my sudden endorphin rush. I was faced once more with the problem of tracking them both at once; now we were in the circle, I needed to get close to the baby, but mamma would still shred me if she got her claws on me.
So I aimed myself at baby, gritting my teeth with the effort of holding onto two spells at once.
Mamma did not disappoint. She stooped like a falcon, and even without the proper altitude that was going to hurt.
If I hadn't already had the spell at my fingertips, I wouldn't have had time to respond. But rule number one of wizardry, much like the Boy Scouts and the internal politics of lion prides on the savannah, is be prepared. I hit the Semurgh with another blast of fire, this one somewhat more focussed. It wasn't as quick to dodge this time, and I scored a singeing hit to one shoulder, knocking it off target. When it tried to correct, there was a god-awful sound and it shot right past me, sucking me down with it.
"Forzare!" I yelled desperately, unceremoniously shoving my enemy with my will and once again taking advantage of Newton's third law of motion.
The Semurgh was slow to pull out of its dive, and the noise it made when it spread its wings sounded like it might be cursing in a language I was very glad I didn't know. Baby Semurgh started to move in, but Mamma said something in that maybe-language to stop it. It called back, and my finely-tuned parental ear had no trouble hearing the whine.
"No!" the Semurgh said in its spine-chilling voice. "Flee the circle!"
Well, that tore it. Baby Semurgh yawped a truly weird grumble and banked, heading back towards the mountains.
"Fuego!" I shouted, and fired a warning shot past its muzzle.
It was a bluff, but it worked. Baby Semurgh turned again, momentarily uncertain, and I seized the opportunity to blow myself upwards at frigging hurricane speeds. The unhappy sounds coming up to me from below indicated that Mamma Semurgh wasn't out of the picture just yet.
There was no heat but mine in the middle of the night, in the heart of winter, and so no updrafts to buoy the Semurgh upwards. But even injured it had a lot more practice flying than I did, and it was going to get there first.
I had a choice. I had no idea how Thomas, Marcone, and the Alphas were doing down there. I could already feel the strength leant to me by Lily's butterfly beginning to ebb. We needed to finish the job and get out of here, or we were all going to end up as bird food. Plus, principles aside, this thing was really starting to tick me off.
Mamma Semurgh was easier to see against the snow capped peaks, with the cracked and charred wound in its shoulder. The shot was perfect. I drew in the fire, getting ready to let go of the wind.
And, yeah. I smote its ruin upon the mountainside.
I felt pretty smug about that for maybe half a second, until I realised I was falling again, and not so much with style. I gathered up the last wisps of Summer fire to call another wind so I could finish this business.
Baby Semurgh's scream spilt the air, somewhat shriller than its parent's. Oh, look. It was coming to me. How considerate. I groped at my neck for the feather Toot had stolen from Bird Sorceress and tore it off over my head.
Instead of more wind, I fed power through my shield bracelet, just for a moment. Just for long enough that the Semurgh didn't kill me on impact. Once it had me, its wings snapped out, levelling off our abrupt descent. Its paws trapped me against it, and it reared its head back in preparation for tearing at my throat and breaking my neck.
In the moment before it struck, I stabbed the feather into it. "Seiunge!"
Bob had hemmed and hawed a lot when I asked him about the chances of getting the kids back sane. I'd decided it would take a better wizard than me to give them a real chance. This definitely wasn't the sort of thing you wanted to do on the fly, in any case. Heh. Get it? Fly? Birds?
So we'd decided to try something simpler.
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but what happened was a little anti-climactic. One second, there was a creature of fantasy and myth, sculpted from ice and opal; the next, a tangled flurry of very confused birds. They jostled each other for a moment, then flew off in all directions. If everything went right, they'd each be drawn to one of the harnesses the Alphas were carrying, which would bind them into quiescence until I found somebody who could undo the rest of it. Or I had a chance to study up on it a bit more.
It was, though I said so myself, a good plan. There was just one thing I'd kind of forgotten when I was putting it together.
Out of the two of us, the Semurgh was the one with wings.