Chapter 6, In Which We Meet a Strange Denizen of the Aether
At least my first impression was that the words “Your journeys are at an end. The aether belongs to me now” issued from her mouth. As the delicate tones of the words in English wafted through my brain and lulled me into a sense of ennui, a more observant part of my psyche realized that the beautiful woman’s lips had indeed moved, but were uttering a language I did not understand, but had heard before.
She was speaking the language of the Ironwright Dwarven Clan.
I struggled against the enchantment, piecing together a haiku in Sanskrit, hoping it would sharpen my fading senses. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Father Bartolomeu collapse to the deck. I was no longer certain what powers Luli might have, but I knew what I could do. If I could just force my hands to cooperate.
Luli acted. Shaking her head as if emerging from water, my quiet little assistant darted toward the statuesque blonde woman. The pressure in my head eased just enough for me to reach into my reticule for my notebook and pencil. I inscribed the sigils for Dispel Enchantment in my personal language on the paper, infusing the script with my will and life force.
The moment I lifted the pencil from the paper, I heard a faint whisper in the air. Inscription magic is subtle, but effective nonetheless. The enchantment vanished. Luli grappled with the blonde woman but, as I suspected, she, too, quickly vanished.
“The ship is in danger,” I said to my assistant. Father Bartolomeu and Mister Pavaka showed signs of rousing, now that the enchantment was gone. “We need their help. Quickly! I know who is behind this!”
Luli nodded sharply and knelt beside the older man while I tentatively shook Mister Pavaka’s shoulder. The marut blinked, gazed up at me with sky blue eyes that quickly clouded to a stormy gray. “Where is the beautiful woman?” he asked.
Before I could open my mouth, his eyes widened. He shoved me aside and drew his pistol. I turned and smothered a gasp.
Crawling over the side of the airship was a creature like nothing I had ever seen. Shimmering iridescence played across its five-foot-wide expanse of reflective skin as it thrust sturdy, lion-like limbs awkwardly toward the deck. Dagger-length curved claws dug into the aged wood as the thing dragged itself toward us, seeming as if its forelegs were the only part of it with bones. It did not have any head or eyes or mouth that I could discern. It resembled some bizarre tent with legs.
We stood transfixed for what seemed an age before Mister Pavaka put away his pistol. He shook his head and said softly, “This is not a creature natural to the aether. This is a construct of the aether.”
“A construct?” I asked, the horrible truth dawning on me as I understood the true extent of the power arrayed against us. “But it has no head. How can it—“
Its two pair of midlegs and its hind legs clanged to the deck simultaneously, the claws ringing out like warning bells. As they did, its tail, a yards-long golden braid identical to the illusionary woman’s tresses, whipped over the side of the Passarola and swung through the air at me. Mister Pavaka freed his sword from its sheath with a metallic ring like distant thunder and parried the braid.
A hum of frustration emanated from the aether construct, but the braided tail swished away and knocked Luli, who was running up with a club, off her feet. She rolled with the impact and, to my amazement, came up gracefully standing. I noticed Father Bartolomeu standing by the railing, well away from the fighting.
While I admired Luli’s fighting technique, the creature concentrated its foreclaws on us. Mister Pavaka shouted a warning. I heard a ripping sound as the claw tore through his sleeve. Liquid darker red than blood stained the fabric. “You dare destroy my shirt?” he said softly, sparks flickering in his eyes. “My sister Aeris, the wind nymph, spun this for me. And she may not be inclined to repair it.” He lunged forward with a twist of his wrist, his cutlass slicing toward the creature’s raised leg.
It hummed loudly, a shining rent appearing in its flesh. Its other leg swung toward Mister Pavaka’s head, but he parried it across his body, claw clanging on the sword. Luli danced across the deck, still clutching the club, and dealt it a blow to one of its midlegs, neatly avoiding the resultant kick. The creature seemed fully able to deal with two attackers while darting its braided tail at me.
Mister Pavaka’s comment about his shirt set off a train of thought. I had put away my notepad and pencil after the dispelling of the aethereal woman. If she could be countered, so could this thing. Confidently, I delved into my pocket and retrieved the notepad and pencil.
Too many things happened at once.
“Ahoy the airship!” came a call from the Hephaestus. I recognized Captain Mallet’s voice.
The sound distracted Mister Pavaka momentarily, and two claws sliced into him, one sending his cutlass spinning across the deck.
Three of the creature’s legs on the left side kicked at Luli simultaneously. She flew into the shadow of the cabin, thudding against the wall with a sickening thud.
The braided tail flicked out and wrapped around my waist and legs, hoisting me into the air. I clutched at the notebook, but the pencil went bouncing down to roll off the Passarola into the clouds below.
And a bright and golden maw opened impossibly within the creature’s back. What a surprise.