The spot of red fire quickly solidified into a man-shaped silhouette, drawing ever closer. Lena saw the light wink out for a brief moment, and for the space of a breath she thought that he had decided to turn back, that perhaps he had never been chasing her at all. This comforting thought was immediately put to rest when a spiraling wave of red blossomed again, curling itself into the shape of two enormous wings. Lena suddenly remembered Isaac telling her he could fly. It seemed he had been telling the truth about that, as well. He's learned to control it more, she noted with a touch of despair. There was no confusion or uncertainty in his movements, now, only a concentrated and singular purpose.
She looked at the scrubby patches of pine trees down below. They seemed to be moving past with an agonizing slowness. For the first time since being assigned to it, Lena missed her drafty old Sunhawk, realizing that she had taken its relative speed for granted. But her plane could not have saved them now, even had it not been lying broken at the bottom of a crevasse. Isaac's new creations were carrying him faster than the wings of any bird; faster, she guessed, than any plane in the entire Imperial Air Force.
Perhaps they could lose him on the ground. There was more forest now, and less snow, so they would not be as exposed. Just as she was contemplating jumping down into the trees below, Patrec leaned hard on a lever to his right, bringing the helicopter's speed to its maximum. There was a shudder in the cabin as the engine caught up, and then the vibration around them increased dramatically in volume. Lena didn't know much about helicopters, but she knew the engine was at its limit. If they had to fly at this pace for very long, it might stall and stop the rotors in mid-air, just as Patrec had predicted.
Patrec stood up, gestured at the controls, and said something incomprehensible to her.
"What?" Lena yelled, struggling to be heard over the noise.
"I said, you take the controls!" he shouted back. Lena wondered if she had heard him right.
"What – uh, alright," she said apprehensively, scooting over to the pilot's seat. She stared blankly at a dashboard full of unlabeled switches, buttons, and blinking yellow lights. "But I don't know how to fly a helicopter!"
"It's easy," Patrec called from the back of the cabin. He was rummaging around in some bags, though for what, Lena had no idea. "The stick on your right is for the direction, and the lever on your left is for the altitude. A halfwit could do it." Somehow, Lena doubted it was as easy as he claimed, but she kept her hand firmly on the joystick he'd pointed out.
She turned her head to look out the side window, and flinched. Isaac was much closer than he had been a mere thirty seconds ago, close enough to see the expression of hatred on his face as he pursued them. Her hand twitched to the right, and the helicopter responded instantly, tilting nearly on its side. Something heavy rolled around in the back and smashed into a wall with a thump.
"Hey, watch the spin!" Patrec yelled, his voice sounding slightly muffled. Lena hurriedly corrected her mistake. It appeared that the unexpected swerve had given them a few yards on Isaac, luckily. She wasn't sure, but it seemed to her that he was having trouble manipulating the giant wings. As if he had read her mind, the wings began to shrink noticeably, until they were only a few feet larger than those of a paizha.
Patrec emerged from the back carrying a rusty military-issue rifle over his shoulder. "Found it," he announced triumphantly. "Now just keep her flying steady until I can nail the bastard."
Before Lena could say what she thought about the chances of that plan succeeding, the old man had dropped to one knee and was squinting through the sight of his gun. The crack of his shot going off was incredibly loud at such close quarters. Lena, who was not wearing any kind of helmet, felt her ears ringing. Patrec let off a stream of colorful curses.
"Did you hit him?" she called, knowing the answer.
"Must have missed," Patrec grunted. He had already reloaded and was preparing to let off another shot. "I swear I was aiming straight at him." The whole helicopter shook as something Lena couldn't see slammed into them from behind. It tilted crazily, nose downward, and she had to fight with the controls to bring them back to horizontal. Miraculously, they had stayed in the air.
"What was that?" Lena yelped. At least five different alarm lights had begun blinking furiously at her.
"He's throwing this lightning stuff, just keep going straight until -" The shock of another impact cut of the rest of Patrec's sentence and nearly knocked Lena from her chair, off-balance as she was. Another rifle shot rang out, and then another. Normal bullets aren't going to stop this, she thought.
"Patrec! Come back and fly this thing!" she yelled. "Let me try something."
"Just what do you think you can do, in the state you're in?" he retorted, but he did come back and give her a hand out of the seat. Isaac's third attack knocked them both sideways against the bulkhead.
"Accurate bastard, isn't he," said Patrec, quickly strapping himself in.
"I just had a crazy idea," Lena gasped when she was able to speak again.
"We're going to need all of those you got," he replied. "Hang on to something." She clung on for dear life to the nearest strap as he sent the helicopter barreling downwards at a sharp angle until the skids were nearly brushing the tops of the trees. Lena began crawling up to where Patrec had extra supplies jumbled around in the back.
"You carry any extra fuel in here?" she asked. Patrec was busy trying to turn the helicopter right despite the engine's shuddering protests.
"In the compartment above all the boxes," he answered distractedly. "Tank's near full, though." Lena had no intention of using it for fuel; Machar was close enough to reach on the tank they had. She opened the compartment to find a large metal can topped with a red cap, sealed tightly. Lena let out a frustrated sigh as she opened the can to find it nearly empty. There was only enough for one chance. She looked around for something to put it in, and her eyes fell upon an empty glass bottle wedged between two compartments. From the smell, it had probably once held some kind of liquor. Trying simultaneously not to spill any of the precious fuel and to move as fast as she could, Lena filled the bottle. The cloth wrap she'd put on her ankle had come loose and was dragging on the floor. She tore a large piece off the end and jammed it into the bottle's neck.
There was a box of matches in Patrec's emergency kit – she grabbed a handful of them and stuffed them in her pocket. "When I say go," she said to Patrec, "cut the speed and take us higher." He nodded and left her to it.
Lena pulled herself closer to the open door with the hand that wasn't holding her makeshift explosive and peered out. The wind had not let up since they had taken flight, and it took some effort to force her eyes open against the gale. Isaac was flying a mere twenty yards behind them, at an angle where he could stay above the backdraft from the rotors. He seemed to have slackened his pace and had no trouble drifting along at their speed. Like a predator, Lena realized. Playing games with his prey. He had no visible wounds; the bullets hadn't touched him.
She had to lure him closer. Suddenly, she had a terrible thought: what if his red-colored magic worked differently from the blue kind she'd seen before? Her entire plan hinged on the idea that, like Josef Bazhov chained to the space heater, he could be brought down by something as natural as heat or flame. If not, she and Patrec had no chance. Soon, he would get bored of the game he was playing and kill them both.
There was no hope for it. Either her plan was going to work or it wasn't. Lena pushed herself farther out of the helicopter, ignoring her body's complaints, until her feet were resting on the skids. She left her right hand behind the door, concealing the match it held. The glass bottle sat just inside, out of sight but within her easy reach.
Isaac looked surprised to see her come out, and then a malicious grin lit his face. Just as she had hoped, he increased his speed and dropped down to her side.
"Getting tired?" she taunted.
He sneered at her. "You're brave for someone in my sights, little girl. You should be begging for me to spare your life."
"After you've spent this much time and energy chasing me? No way," she said, hoping he wouldn't hear the tremor in her voice. "Besides, if I wait long enough, you might start trying to shake hands with your neck again. What was that display of affection supposed to prove, anyway?"
He looked genuinely angry for a second, then it passed, and that nasty smile returned. "My host was… stronger than I expected. It was easy enough to manipulate his emotions at first, but when that grew tiresome, I took control. His feeble attempt at stopping me was futile. You won't get a chance like that again." Lena stared at him, searching his face for any trace of the real Isaac, and found nothing. Whatever had taken him over was telling the truth. She felt a lump rising in her throat.
"Yeah, right," she scoffed, to hide it. "I bet you didn't even know that there's a battle going on. While you're wasting your time out here, Lord Medric is taking over your fancy castle. So much for that."
His eyes narrowed to a slit. "I've heard enough out of you." The wings on his back unfurled fully as he dove straight at her.
"Now, Patrec!" Lena yelled, striking the match as she did so. The noise of the engine faded to a dull rumble immediately as they slowed to a fraction of their former speed. Isaac overshot his target and flew right over Lena's head. The helicopter began to rise just as quickly until it hovered directly above him. It was the perfect angle for her to throw the fuel-filled bottle, cloth stopper now alight and burning steadily, right at Isaac's disbelieving face. Her hand was slippery, however, greasy from a few drops of spilled oil, and her aim was off. If she didn't do something now, it was going to miss him by inches. Yet there was nothing she could do.
With all her strength, Lena willed the bottle to change its course, barely knowing what she was doing. The cold wind flowed through her body, touching somewhere deep inside. Lena felt like a spectator in her own skin. Her hand leapt up of its own accord and twitched in a gesture she did not recognize. The bottle stopped, hovering impossibly in midair for the space of a heartbeat, then spun and crashed directly into the center of Isaac's chest.
She heard the tinkle of breaking glass, and then his wordless howl as the flames leaped up, encircling the pale cloak he wore. The red aura around him crackled once, flickered, and disappeared. Clawing at the fire that enveloped him, with no wings left to hold him in the sky, Isaac fell like a stone, fifty feet to the snow-capped trees below.
Lena watched the spot where he had fallen until she was sure he was out of sight. There was no further flash of red visible on the ground, and the only sound she heard was the buzz of the engine. She was too shocked to rejoice at her apparent victory, or grieve for the death of a familiar face. Her eyes dropped to her hands.
How did I do that? she thought, her heart pounding painfully in her chest. How was that even possible? The faint buzz in her fingertips faded, leaving no proof that anything untoward had happened, but she was sure she had not imagined it.
Patrec, who had been watching through the side window, congratulated her with a loud cheer that made her jump, so focused was she on her own thoughts.
"Nice aim, sweetheart," he called out. She glanced at him, wondering if he had seen what she had. Nothing in his face said so, which only cast further doubt on her own perceptions. A few days ago you thought all magic was impossible, she told herself, but it didn't change the fact that she was Eluvari, not from one of the clans. Magic was passed down through blood, from gifted relatives, according to Isaac, and she had none of them. "Where'd you learn to make something like that?"
She thought of telling him about it, but decided to keep it to herself. "A sergeant I knew in training had been stationed at Chuonxeng, in the early months after the uprising there," she replied truthfully. "He said the rebels made hundreds of those to throw at our soldiers, since they didn't have enough weapons to go around."
He smiled ruefully. "They certainly didn't."
With everything else she had to think about, that comment nearly went right over her head. "You were there?" she said at last, shocked.
He gestured towards the patch on the shoulder of his too-small jacket, which she had completely missed. Three black bars on a white background, the mark of a captain. "Don't know why I kept this, all these years," he said a little sadly, keeping his eyes on the sky ahead. "I suppose I always thought I'd have a chance to wear it again. It's been… well, it's been a long time. I got tired of jumping whenever anyone said frog, and after Rulo got himself shot, I had nothing to keep me in that blasted jungle any longer." He looked out at the nearby mountains, which had become edged with a golden light as the sun peeked out over them. "I liked it in Vyr, even in the winter. It was a good place to forget."
"Patrec, I – " She swallowed, and changed what she had been about to say. "You know the penalty for desertion… and you're flying to an Imperial outpost anyway?"
"I'll take you to the landing field. They'll be so overjoyed at the safe return of one of their pilots that they won't ask too many questions, especially not if I flash this patch around." He smiled at her as she tiredly pulled herself back onto the crate and leaned her head against the wall. "You ought to rest, now. I've had to reduce the speed quite a bit to make sure we get there in one piece. We'll be there in a few hours." He said something else, but Lena did not hear it, having succumbed to exhaustion as soon as she closed her eyes.
As promised, he tapped her on the shoulder two hours later to awaken her. As tired as Lena was, it felt like mere seconds had passed since she had fallen asleep, but she was grateful and relieved to see the muddy smear that was Machar in the valley below them, fully visible in the midmorning sun. Patrec pushed forward on the altitude lever, beginning their descent.
"Well, here we go," he said brightly as the airfield came into sight. "I hope your mission was successful, whatever it was."
She had forgotten about it again. Lena pulled the battered letter out of her jacket pocket, where it had remained relatively safe and sound through everything that had happened. The ribbon was gone, the envelope was crumpled and torn by turns, and the seal had been cut cleanly in two. She recalled how proud she had been to carry it when it had first been given to her. Had that really only been a few days ago?
"The seal's broken," Patrec pointed out. Lena gave him a look, and he grinned back, unashamed of his curiosity. "Tell them I opened it, if they ask."
"I guess it couldn't do any harm to read it now," Lena said hesitantly. "They probably sent another one, anyway, when I didn't come back." Her fingers slid under the flap and pulled out the single sheet of ivory paper that lay inside. The first part was a form letter, written in an Imperial clerk's neat, generic handwriting:
To his Excellency, Marten Aloras, Ninth Governor of Machar –
We acknowledge your city's loyalty to the Empire in these troubled times, and the victories which Machari men have won with their lives. In light of a recent discovery, however, these numbers have become insufficient. This is a summons for a new battalion of one thousand men to be delivered to our Capital, and for an accompanying tribute of the same number of gold crowns, in addition to the regiments stationed in our southern provinces. As an Allied city, this is required from you by the oaths you swore.
Failure to deliver these necessary troops by November 1st will result in military action.
It was signed with a smaller version of the Emperor's seal, a stylized tiger rampant against three crescent moons. Lena was confused by the letter and wondered if she had read it right. Identical letters had gone out to the governors of all the Allied cities, all saying – she assumed – the same thing. What did the Emperor need with so many soldiers, and why was this all planned in such secrecy? Was he planning another assault on Chuonxeng?
Her gaze drifted to the bottom of the letter, where someone else had scribbled a few lines in an urgent and more familiar hand.
The rumors are true. A powerful weapon is hidden in those mountains, and he intends to take it. Let me know the answer to what we discussed before as soon as you get this.
The handwriting was unfamiliar, but Lena knew that the general in charge of the Imperial Air Force was a man named Laron de Fiyez.
Patrec, meanwhile, had begun slowly settling the helicopter into the wet and muddy airfield, ignoring a man who was jumping up and down waving two red flags. "I'll move it in a second, no need to carry on so," he shouted out the door, knowing the man could hear him. Then he turned to Lena, who had raised her eyes to meet his. "Well, what does it say?" he said impatiently. He noticed how pale her face had suddenly become. "Something wrong?"
"It's not over," she said faintly, handing the letter to him. From the center of the deep valley where Machar was situated, it was impossible to see anything of the mountains from which they had just escaped, but she stared off in that direction as if they were still plainly visible. Not yet.
END OF PART ONE