The carriage attempting to flank them on the left suddenly skidded, veering back and forth as its driver fought for control. There had been no sign of magic used that was visible from within the passenger compartment of Glory’s vehicle, but Schwartz had told them that with so much snow already in the air, manipulating ice to deprive their pursuers of traction would be one of the easiest spells available to him. He was probably responsible for the sliding of that carriage, since he apparently did nothing to prevent the other one from pulling up almost even with them.
Rasha had snatched up one of the wands Glory had distributed and now pushed open the window, stuck it out and fired.
The lightning bolt flew wide, sparking against a tree trunk in passing, but the pursuers fell back slightly, rather than try their luck against random wandshots. The Eserites didn’t have a better angle of fire without opening the doors to lean out, the rear window being fully attached to the frame. Rasha jerked back in, leaving the window opening and ignoring both the snowflakes and icy wind which blew in and Layla’s shriek of protest at them.
“Here,” Glory said in the momentary lull, tugging a piece of the seat beside her. A section of it slid partly forward, exposing a hidden compartment, into which she reached to pull out a gold-hilted Avenic short sword in a glossy leather sheath. She handed this to Jasmine. “Best to be prepared.”
“What in the world is she going to do with that?” Layla screeched. “Has everyone forgotten what century it is?”
“Not much use right now,” Jasmine allowed, “but the plan is to engage them on foot at the end of this.”
“She can do more damage with that blade than you can with a wand,” Glory added.
“Hold on!” Rasha shouted.
The carriage at which he’d fired approached again, this time almost directly from behind, cutting off the view of the truck bringing up the rear; the angle kept it out of the way of wandfire from their windows. All four of them looked back at Rasha’s shout, then braced themselves barely in time to keep their seats as the pursuing vehicle slammed into their back right fender.
The carriage rocked, but Smythe kept it on course, quickly adjusting out of the resulting skid and then accelerating until they were very nearly tailgating Vandro’s carriage up ahead. The dwarves’ vehicle did not fare so well from its attack; it swerved and barely kept from sliding off into the trees, forced to drastically reduce speed to regain control and compelling its own allies to quickly maneuver out of the way. It had lost one front lamp in the impact.
“Falconer traction charms really do beat Dawnco,” Jasmine muttered, still gripping the bench. “I know someone who’ll be smug…”
In the meantime, the carriage first deflected by Schwartz had recovered its traction and was coming up again; Rasha and Glory both shifted to the opposite side, ready to lean out the windows with wands. The window next to the driver’s seat on the oncoming carriage opened as well, and a bearded dwarf leaned partially out, aiming a wand of his own at them.
“Get down!” Jasmine shouted.
Before they could, however, a tiny streak of red struck the dwarf directly in the beard, and while he flailed, bounced into the driver’s compartment of his vehicle.
An instant later, the compartment was literally full of a huge, glowing cat.
Meesie’s roar was audible to them even over the road noise; her sheer bulk popped open both doors on the vehicle’s driver bench. The driver kept his seat, barely, though his passenger was flung out into the road, and immediately run over by the pursuing truck, which rocked alarmingly but did not capsize or lose significant traction. Meanwhile, the carriage with Meesie in it now lit up a fierce gold as multiple occupants channeled huge amount of divine magic. It had the desired effect; the elemental vanished with a bellowing yowl of protest, but that was an empty victory. The carriage itself veered entirely off the road even as she disappeared, spinning about ninety degrees and toppling over on its side, where it continued to skid on the snow until its front fender smashed against a tree.
“One down,” Glory said with grim satisfaction.
“Oh, no.” Layla pressed both hands to her mouth; in the brief time between Schwartz’s arrival at the townhouse and their departure, she had been immensely taken with the tiny elemental. “Oh, poor Meesie.”
“She’s fine,” said Jasmine. “According to Schwartz, if damaged enough to disappear she’ll just come back to—look out!”
The other carriage had pulled forward again; this time, one of its passenger doors swung wide open, and out leaned a dwarf clearly being held by another inside the compartment, considering he had both hands occupied aiming a battlestaff at them.
All four hurled themselves to the floor as lightning flashed past outside.
More bursts of white light flickered through their windows, accompanied by the crack of thunderbolts and the deeper retorts of trees being struck by the discharges, but nothing hit their carriage. After a few more seconds of this, Jasmine warily crawled up onto the back seat to peak out the window.
“He’s missing,” she reported.
“Well, obviously,” Layla said scathingly. “Why is he missing? Did they designate their only blind confederate as the trigger man?”
“The lightning bolts are being diverted away!” Jasmine replied, grinning.
“Bless that witch,” Glory said fervently, lifting herself back into the seat and retrieving her wand, which she had dropped in her lunge to the floor.
“Yeah,” Rasha agreed, peeking warily out beside Jasmine. “The question is, how long can he keep that up?”
Suddenly their carriage shook under the thump of something impacting the roof, and swerved momentarily before Smythe got it back under control.
“And what the blazes was that?” Layla cried.
Perched precariously atop Vandro’s speeding carriage with one hand clutching the edge of the roof and the other holding to her staff, Tallie watched the confrontation behind them with a lot more worry for her friends in the line if fire than her own very immediate prospects of falling to a particularly ugly demise. Heights and unstable footing were downright comfortingly familiar to her. Granted, speeding down a dark highway in a snowstorm was new, but hey, you had to shake up the act now and again or the punters got bored.
She grinned savagely as the first pursuing carriage went down. In the next moment, though, she reflexively ducked, nearly losing her footing, as lightning began to flash around to the side. It kept shooting off to the left of Glory’s carriage, and it took only a moment’s study for her to understand what must be happening. She could see Schwartz, silhouetted in the glare of the truck’s powerful lights, standing upright somehow despite the snow, wind, and motion of the carriage. He was also holding one hand forward toward their pursuers.
Tallie didn’t know a thing about witchcraft, but she knew how exhausting anything that demanded concentration and physical stamina could get. And she knew what would happen when Schwartz’s energy flagged. How far were they from the point Glory had suggested?
The gap between their vehicles had narrowed when Smythe pressed forward to gain room, but now Wilberforce began to accelerate, pushing Vandro’s carriage to a truly dangerous speed in order to create space between them again. The gap began widening, and Tallie came to an abrupt decision.
She didn’t bother trying to get a running start; she could never have kept her balance doing that under these conditions. Instead she slid her body forward, planted one foot against the rear edge of the roof, and kicked off as powerfully as she could without sacrificing her footing.
The moment of arcing through the snowy air above the highway was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating of her life.
She had misjudged the jump slightly—forgivable, under the circumstances—and slipped upon landing, coming down on her knees instead of her feet. The pain was sharp and bright, and Tallie ignored it completely, being fully occupied with losing neither her staff nor herself over the side. Throwing her body flat, she managed to grasp one edge of the carriage’s roof, dig one toe in against the ornate molding lining it (bless Glory’s extravagant tastes), and stop her horrifying slide over the edge. For a moment she clung there, one foot hanging over the windscreen probably right in front of Smythe, before rallying and pulling herself back up to kneel. This position put more pressure on her already-traumatized knees, which she continued to ignore.
Tallie looked up in time to spot Schwartz glancing back at her; he quickly returned his attention to their pursuit, but at least that mean she could speak to him without accidentally frightening him off the roof. He struck her as being of a generally nervous disposition—or at least, had before she saw this performance.
“I thought you couldn’t use an energy shield on an enchanted carriage!” she shouted over the wind.
“Arcane shields, no,” he replied, strain evident in his voice. “Not shielding, anyway, redirecting. Lightning is practically natural, easy to do with my craft… If they’ve got a proper enchanter wand in there, we’re in serious—”
He broke off suddenly, falling to his own knees and holding out his other hand. Only when another barrage of lightning bolts went flashing harmlessly off to the opposite side of the carriage did she realize that their pursuer’s opposite door had opened and another dwarf was attacking them with a wand.
Meesie, who had been too small to be visible from Vandro’s carriage ahead, squealed furiously at Tallie, despite having to cling to Schwartz’s collar with all four paws to avoid being blown away.
“Now,” Schwartz snarled, “would be…a good…time!”
Tallie was already bringing up her staff; she had to creep forward till she was next to him and take aim from right under his arm to avoid the very real prospect of blasting him point-blank, given the way their perch was rocking.
She had never fired a staff before; she’d fired a crossbow, though. This had much less recoil, which seemed ironic.
Tallie wasn’t a great shot, but she managed to rake the side of the carriage, causing the dwarf with the wand to fall out with an audible cry. The carriage itself bucked from the impact, its upper left edge a scorched ruin and actually on fire in a couple of places, but the driver regained control and kept on after having to sacrifice a few yards of proximity. That was still easily within staff range.
Given that only one side in that firefight had any defensive measures, that pretty much decided the matter.
The barrage coming at them from the dwarf’s staff intensified so much that the weapon had to be in immediate danger of overheating; clearly their foe could analyze the tactical reality just as well. Tallie’s second shot punched right through the windscreen, though not on the side where the driver perched. She had been aiming for the driver’s seat, but these were hardly optimal shooting conditions. Her next shot at the driver didn’t hit him, either; their carriage bumped right as she fired, causing both herself and Schwartz to slide terrifyingly backward, and her staff jerked straight down as she fought for balance.
However, that meant the shot blasted one of their pursuer’s front wheels clean off.
The carriage crumpled forward onto itself like a horse with a broken leg, its fender plowing into the highway and causing its back end to reel upward. Too close to avoid it, the following truck plowed right into its ally, the driver managing to swerve only just enough to make the collision relatively indirect. It finished the work of smashing the vehicle, though, and knocking it fully off the road.
The truck came on, now missing one of its brilliant running lamps, but apparently undeterred.
“Nice shot,” Schwartz said breathlessly. Meesie squeaked and nodded.
Tallie grinned at him, not about to argue despite that shot being a complete accident. “Not so bad yourself. Hang tight, though, we’re not nearly out of this yet.”
“I say, is this ominous?” Layla asked nervously, peering through the rear window at the sole remaining lamp of the truck following them. “I mean, it seems odd that we’re doing so well. We are outnumbered, and I learned long ago to be suspicious of anything that seems to be going like a bard’s story.”
“A rider is only as good as his mount,” Glory replied calmly. “Those are cheap, mass-produced vehicles acquired locally for the sake of anonymity. Our carriages were the absolute top of the line even before Webs and I commissioned our various personal enhancements, and both are being driven by Butlers. No, this is proceeding more or less as I expected. The real test will come once we’re off the road.”
A persistent chiming rapidly grew in volume and their carriage swerved to hug the right edge of the road, following Vandro’s ahead, and followed a moment later by the truck behind. Another vehicle shot past them on their left—actually moving far slower than they, but quickly lost behind due to their speed, along with the sound of its driver frantically yanking his alarm bell in panic.
“That’s an important reminder,” Jasmine said grimly. “Storm or no storm, this is a public highway scarcely a stone’s throw from the Imperial capital. It’s amazing there’s not more traffic.”
“What do you want to bet that guy goes right to the nearest police with this story?” Rasha asked. “I mean, even if he couldn’t see the damage to these carriages, he’s about to pass two wrecked ones that have obviously been shot, and probably bodies in the road.”
“All according to plan,” Glory said soothingly, patting Rasha’s shoulder. “Official vehicles will be out soon anyway; this storm came on quickly, but they try to keep up a presence in dangerous weather in case anyone needs help. Secrecy is more than we can hope for. Remember, getting the Empire involved will be to our benefit. It’s the dwarves who attacked first.”
“Which means,” Jasmine reminded them, “they have an urgent need to stop us before the Imperials catch up.”
“It’s that thing I want to know about,” Glory murmured, staring back at the truck through narrowed eyes. “Those little Dawnco rigs didn’t last long, which was no surprise. That one, though… What have they got in there?”
“Why are we slowing—oh.”
Schwartz turned to face forward as the carriages decelerated. Up ahead, lights rose through the gloom, and after only moments longer the forest fell away to both sides.
Imperial foresters kept the immediate surroundings of Tiraas as pristine and natural as possible, a policy established by Emperor Sarsamon, the founder of the Tirasian Dynasty, but this forest was scarcely a century old. Before that, Tiraan Province had been thoroughly settled farming country, but during the Enchanter Wars battles had torn up the landscape, and in the lawless and tax free years which followed, much of the land had been despoiled by opportunistic companies, strip-mining and mass-logging until the once-proud capital stood surrounded by a virtual wasteland. Tirasian conservation efforts or no, however, this was still a populated region; the cities of Tiraas, Anteraas and Madouris stood quite close together, and there were numerous smaller towns and villages in the vicinity. The highway now passed straight through one.
Here, even more than in the capital, people had retreated inside to escape the cold, dark, and the rapidly thickening blanket of snow which had piled nearly a foot deep in only a few hours. It was far from deserted, however. Lights blazed from many windows, and as the quality of the highway’s paving improved with its transition to village main street, regularly spaced lamp posts appeared lining the way.
Two people were trudging along the snow-buried sidewalk, heads down and hands jammed in coat pockets; they ignored the short convoy of enchanted carriages which now passed through the town, having decelerated to a speed that would not garner attention. Another man stood on the corner of a cross-street, however, smoking a cigarette. Or at least he had been; it was blown from his fingers into the slush-filled gutter by an errant gust of wind, which he appeared not to notice, being occupied staring at their procession.
The two lead carriages were both clearly expensive, though Vandro’s also bore the significant scars of its rough treatment back in Tiraas. The hulking delivery truck bringing up the rear had also taken a beating, its front fender totally smashed by the recent impact with the wrecked Dawnco sedan, the lamp on that side torn clean off. Only Glory’s carriage bore no signs of damage. It did, however, have Schwartz and Tallie sitting on the roof, in the snow, he with a cheerfully burning little elemental on his shoulder, she clutching a battlestaff.
In the light of the village’s street lamps, they could, for the first time, see the dwarf ensconced in the truck’s driver seat. He tipped his hat politely to the staring man as they passed.
“We could make a fuss,” Tallie said quietly. “There must be police close to here, either Imperial or House Madouri. Tell ’em what’s been going on…”
“Glory picked out a destination for the ambush,” Schwartz replied quietly. “Jasmine has a plan, and anyway, we’ve got allies waiting for us who will be left high and dry if we don’t show. At least one is a friend of mine. Besides,” he added, directing a scowl at the truck behind, “I think Jasmine’s plans can be trusted, as a general rule.”
Catching his look, the dwarf driving the truck smiled and waved at him. Tallie calmly made a crude gesture in reply.
“Did you know Jasmine before we all wound up in that jail?” she asked him.
Schwartz grinned in spite of himself. “Well, I mean, sure. We were all in that warehouse before we were in jail.”
“You know what I mean,” she snapped.
“Yes, I do,” he said more soberly, not meeting her eyes. “And no…I didn’t.”
“Mm.” Tallie studied him critically, the light fading around them; they were already moving toward the opposite fringe of the village. “And yet, you know something about her that I don’t?”
Schwartz glanced at her, then shifted uncomfortably. Meesie turned to give Tallie a look, pointed one paw at her and squeaked a warning.
“Mm hm,” Tallie said smugly. “Ah, well, people keep reminding me others are entitled to their secrets.”
“It’s probably significant if people have to keep reminding you of that,” Schwartz said pointedly.
“Let’s table this for later,” she suggested. “Sound like it’ll be a fun argument, and right now I just don’t think we can spare it the attention it deserves.”
Up ahead, Wilberforce signaled the end of their reprieve by pouring power into the wheels, his carriage blazing off into the darkness. Smythe kept Glory’s smoothly right behind it, and for a few moments they started to leave their pursuer in their wake. After dropping back until the truck’s remaining lamp was almost a pinprick, though, it began rapidly swelling again. The truck could not match a Falconer carriage for acceleration, but even with the best available traction charms and Butler drivers, everyone’s top speed was limited by what they could safely do in the snow and the darkness. In only another minute, the truck was once again bearing down on them.
Now, however, the vehicle emitted a sudden bang, and the flat roof of its cargo compartment—which made up the majority of its size—suddenly shot into the air, falling to the road behind them.
“Oh, what the hell now,” Tallie groaned. “Look at the size of that thing—they could have a mag cannon in there!”
“You can’t put magical artillery on top of anything running on wheel enchantments, either,” Schwartz said pedantically even as he stared at the truck. There was definitely some kind of mechanism in it; groaning and clacking noises were emerging, loud enough to be clear despite the wind blasting past them. “Mag cannons work by channeling a burst of otherwise standard wandfire through two tiny dimensional portals affixed back to back, which exponentially increases the power using the ambient energy that causes the universe itself to function. Most of a mag cannon’s bulk is the charmed apparatus that safely contains those spells, and even so, unstable portals mess up all kinds of other charms, especially anything designed to be specifically mobile and adaptive. Believe me, the military would love…”
“Why in hell’s name does he think I care about this?” Tallie muttered to herself, taking aim with her staff. Meesie glanced over at her and shook her tiny head.
This time, her shot was true and struck the target head-on, but this time, it accomplished virtually nothing. Lightning veered off course, arcing over and into the open back of the truck.
“What the fuck?!” she screeched.
“I say, how clever!” Schwartz exclaimed.
“I thought you said you can’t shield an enchanted carriage!”
“You can’t, the innate wear on shields increases hugely at the speed carriages travel, and more importantly the necessary phasing to allow airflow catastrophically disrupts wheel enchantments—” He noticed her glare and broke off, wincing. “Ah, yes, but anyway, that’s not shielded, it’s got a lightning rod!”
“What the f—I thought those have to be grounded!”
“They do!” Schwartz said enthusiastically. “Which means it’s being redirected into some kind of power storage unit inside the vehicle! If I could only get to it, I could easily overload the thing—”
They both had to drop down and hold on for dear life as the highway went into a wide curve; despite Smythe’s obvious skill at the control runes, the carriage skidded, only righting itself properly once the road straightened out again an interminable few seconds later. At least the same disruption put a temporary halt to whatever was going on in the back of the truck, though the loud ticking and grinding resumed almost immediately.
“Then you’d be in there when it blew,” Tallie pointed out when she felt she could spare the attention for talking.
“Hmm.” Schwartz scowled back at the truck. “I bet I could get Meesie into there, but with no way of knowing exactly what she’d find, it’s impossible to give her the right tools or instructions. She’s not a very adaptive oh come on, are you kidding me?!”
The machinery finally revealed itself, a huge apparatus rising up above the truck’s driver compartment, its wide arms snapping outward and locking into place. It truly was an ingenious piece of engineering, and altogether remarkable that the dwarves had such a thing on hand. Of course, as military hardware went, the thing was so outdated the Imperial Army would have scoffed at it, but in their present situation, there could be no doubt what the ballista would do to their carriage at that range.
A bolt almost as long as Schwartz was tall was already locked into place; the pointed end aiming at them had been machined in a spiraling pattern like the head of a screw.
Tallie fired her staff right at it, with exactly the same disappointing result as before.
Schwartz, however, stood upright and held his hand aloft; after a second’s concentration, a ball of fire burst alight in his palm. Before the ballista could fire, he hurled it directly at the front of the truck.
The fireball missed the driver compartment, but impacted the truck directly on the flat wall behind it. Like nearly all carriages, the truck’s body was made of wood, and whatever lightning-deflecting apparatus it possessed did nothing at all against fire.
The truck’s frame caught as if soaked in oil; clearly Schwartz’s weaponized fireballs were packing more than just fire. Blazing merrily and spewing smoke, the truck kept after them without so much as slowing. And the entirely metal structure of the ballista itself was visible through the flame, still aimed right at them.
Another loud cranking noise sounded from within.
“Dodge!” Tallie screamed at the top of her lungs, throwing herself flat and pounding a foot on the roof of the carriage. “DODGE!”
The sound the ballista made was oddly melodic, though far too deep and powerful to be rightly called a twang.
Smythe got the message; the carriage abruptly swerved as widely as the space of the highway would allow.
Tallie felt the wind of the massive projectile whip past her. If she had not lain flat and if Smythe hadn’t adjusted their course, it would have gone right through her body. The bastards were either worse shots than she, or weren’t even aiming at the carriage.
There came a crash from ahead, followed by the screaming of braking wheels on the highway, and she turned her head to look, horrified by what she might see.
Vandro’s carriage was not a loss, however. The ballista bolt had grazed it, ripping off a chunk of its roof, but Wilberforce fought it back into a steady course even as she watched. Smythe had to decelerate sharply to avoid plowing into his rear fenders, causing Tallie and Schwartz to slide toward the front of their rooftop.
“All right, that is it!” Schwartz growled, and hurled Meesie at the truck.
She transformed in midair, plummeting to the road to land directly in front of it. The truck did not slow.
Its front bumper, what remained of it, crumpled completely upon impact with the huge cat; the truck rode high enough off the ground that she was swept beneath it rather than smashing directly through its body. However, in that form, Meesie was too big for its wheels to simply roll over.
The entire truck bucked off the highway, veered, skidded, and flew into a spin. As their carriages accelerated away, their pursuer was traveling completely sideways when it finally toppled over, smashing the intricate collapsible ballista protruding from its bed, still burning fiercely.
Tallie’s scream of triumph managed to compress a surprising number of obscenities into only a few seconds. In the middle of it, Meesie popped back into existence on Schwartz’s shoulder, herself emitting a shrill tirade that sounded unmistakably of cursing despite containing no words.
“Look!” Schwartz shouted, pointing ahead of them. The forest opened up to reveal a broad field; Wilberforce and then Smythe slowed their respective vehicles, turning through a gate which lead into the middle of it. If there was a road, it was completely buried under the snow. Up ahead, there loomed the landmark Glory had pointed out to Jasmine as the ideal ambush point: an old fortification from the Enchanter Wars, abandoned but left there by the Imperial government as a reminder. Its crumbling battlements covered nearly an acre, with the round central structure rising five stories from its center almost wide enough to appear squat.
“We made it!” Schwartz crowed. “Principia and her squad are in there waiting for us!”
Before she could even reply, the night lit up like noon.
The size of the explosion was such that the century-old fortress dissolved entirely in a column of fire.