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A Wizard’s War First Chapters

Copyright © Ian Irvine 2015.

Contains the first section of the novella A Wizard’s War and the first two sections of the novelette One Throw of the Die.

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A Wizard’s War

Perhaps the greatest, unquestionably the most influential, and certainly one of the longest-lived old human mancers has always been an enigma, not least because he made sure that all the records of his early life were erased. But late in his final life he must have regretted it, and took care to set some parts of the record straight. Here, for the first time and in his own words, is the story of the worst deed of his life, and the deed that made him.

 It is set late in the Clysm, the 500-year war between the Aachim and the Charon that devastated Santhenar and almost wiped old humans out. The time is around 1100 years before the events of The View from the Mirror.

1

My original name was Nudifer Spoak, though most people called me Nudie – usually in a mocking, sing-song voice, Nu-deeee. How I hated it. Now, unable to take any more, I hunched over the home-made orrery in my smelly cupboard room and plotted my righteous retribution.

Retribution on Blaggart College of the Secret Art; on its sneering Head Master, Trukulus Vish; on my chief tormenter, the popular, wealthy and handsome Head Boy, Haddon Sloon. Retribution on everyone and everything in my miserable life.

Thinking of the new boy, I shivered. Perhaps not quite everyone.

He went by a single name, Yggur, and, though he said little and did even less, even Haddon went in awe of him. Yggur had entered the final year at Blaggart a few weeks ago. He was said to be twenty, several years older than the rest of the final year, though he had an ageless look about him, a sense of self-sufficiency that I could only envy, and an air of supreme confidence in his own abilities.

Yggur was remarkably tall and lean, with unfashionably long hair as black as the wing of a crow and eyes the colour of frost on agate. His mancery, entirely self-taught, was unlike anyone else’s and rumoured to be very powerful, though he had declined to demonstrate it to any other student.

I adjusted the rings of my orrery yet again, but divined nothing. My back was aching, my acne-covered face throbbed and I was sweating like a racehorse. ‘Stinky Nudie, scholarship boy,’ the other students called me.

I washed three times a day but it made no difference. My scholarship only covered tuition and, though I tutored younger students when I could, scrubbed out cauldrons until late in the night, cleaned and mended the equipment used in the alchemy classes, fixed clocks and did whatever other odd jobs I could get, I could only afford the price of a bath once a month.

Retribution!

I shifted on the broken bricks that formed my seat and adjusted the angle of my candle until its feeble light lit the orrery. My room was cold, damp, airless, mouldy and no bigger than a storage cupboard. My drunken parents had been right – I would never amount to anything.

Scholarship boy! I’d been so proud when I’d won it. My teacher had wept, ‘Brilliant, Nudifer! Quite brilliant!’

It was the last kind thing anyone ever said about me. I started badly at Blaggart College and never recovered. Though I worked as hard as anyone could, and had an intuitive grasp of mancery, my marks were getting worse each term. I had been called before Trukulus Vish three times this year and I felt sure the chisel-faced Head Master was going to fail me. What would happen to me then?

I could not, would not slink home to my drunken parents. How they would crow! It would prove my failure, and prove them right. Besides, they were more abusive than ever – if I stayed, they would end up killing me. Or the converse, which was unthinkable.

Better that I never saw them again. But if I failed, where could I go? How could I survive? The Clysm, the war between the mighty Charon and the equally powerful Aachim, had been raging back and forth across Lauralin for four hundred years and we old humans, caught between two almost immortal species, were little more than slaves, flung into one hideous battlefield or another, to die.

It wasn’t right. Something had to be done.

A month ago each student in the final year had been required to make an orrery, a working model of the planets and their moons, and use it for divination. I’m good with my hands and my orrery was beautifully made – a series of perfect, pivoting brass rings mounted on a hand-carved wooden base. Amber beads, representing the heavenly bodies, could be slid along the rings to simulate their motions in the celestial sphere. Yet, incomprehensibly, my work had been given a failing mark.

As I sat there, seething, I was struck by a brilliant and original idea: to adapt my orrery to below rather than above. Instead of showing the mundane and predictable movement of the planets and their moons, what if I rebuilt it to plumb the enigmatic motions of the most important objects in the lower circles? To use the underworld for divination.

Good, good.

I sprang up, looking around wildly, but there was no one else in my broom cupboard. I must have imagined that faint, whispering voice. I resumed my deliberations.

I did not know if the underworld actually existed. Though there were stories of demons and imps in every culture, they could have been made up to meet a universal need. Or feed a primal terror. However certain philosophers speculated that a subterranean or chthonian plane, external to the physical world of Santhenar, did exist … and could be a source of entirely new forms of mancery. Dare I try?

What did I have to lose? All my life I had followed the rules, worked hard and treated other people the way I wanted to be treated, and what had it gained me? Abuse and failure. This time it was going to be different.

Over the next week, working by instinct at the blackest hours, I rebuilt my orrery again and again until, one desperate night, I touched something.

I did not know what, though I knew it could not be a source of power. The theory of mancery at that time held that all power came from within the person doing it, the only exception being when power had already been stored in an enchanted object such as a ring or talisman. I sensed no power, but I had felt something unblock within myself. Something previously sealed off or out of reach – something that had been holding me back all this time – had become available.

And I was going to use it on the first person to cross me.

That afternoon I raked my rapidly thinning hair into a semblance of order and went out, pulling my threadbare red robes around myself, to wander the chilly halls of Blaggart. The college had been built seven hundred years ago, long before the Clysm began and, though it was not a secret, its location in the mountains was not advertised, either.

Originally it had been a fortified castle guarding a strategic pass, and it was a grim place built of dark, weeping stone. Its multitude of steeple roofs were black slate which shone when wet, which it nearly always was. The college was cold, damp and utterly joyless.

Immediately behind it, a range of mountains formed a snowy barrier to the south, briefly interrupted by a broken red cliff with a ruined manse on a ledge halfway up. Two miles north, on the lowlands, stood the dreary town of Gard.

‘Nudifer!’ said a cold voice behind me. ‘My office, four p. m.’

‘Yes, Master Vish.’ I turned, looking up – being short and bent-backed, I looked up at almost everyone. ‘Is something the matter … sir?’

‘Four p. m., scholarship boy!’ Vish sneered and walked off, his long legs moving like hedge clippers.

I clenched a fist in my pocket. One day!

A very tall boy came striding the other way. Realising that I was hunching my shoulders, trying to make myself more inconspicuous, I stood up straight.

‘Spoak,’ said Yggur, hesitating in mid-step as if planning to speak to me.

He was strange and scary, and he had such an air of self-sufficiency that not even the toughest bullies or cruellest masters dared take him on.

‘Yes, Yggur?’ I said politely.

‘Be careful where you delve.’ He nodded and kept walking.

What was he talking about? Did he know about my underworld orrery? How could he?

But Vish’s words haunted me. Four p. m., scholarship boy! I almost turned back to my cupboard, to wait out the hour and a half. I felt sure he was going to order me out of Blaggart. But if he was, I had nothing to lose and no reason to go quietly. This once, the mouse was going to roar.

Dare I?

‘If it isn’t Stinky Nudie, deep in what passes for thought,’ said a deep, drawling voice. ‘How’s your last day going, scholarship boy?’

I spun on one foot, raising a fist in helpless fury. Haddon, who was with half a dozen friends, did not flinch. He wasn’t afraid of anyone, and why would he be? He was big and strong, his father was a judge and a close friend of Master Vish, his mother was one of the school governors, and everyone except me liked and admired him.

‘Why are you tormenting me?’ To my chagrin, my voice went squeaky.

‘Because you’re not one of us and your family is a disgrace to humanity.’

‘Leave my family out of it!’ I said furiously.

‘But they’ve made you what you are. What’s the matter with your face, anyway?’

I felt my inflamed cheeks. ‘I – what?’

‘You look like a warthog.’

‘You – you –’ I spluttered, almost exploding with helpless rage. I was powerless against the likes of him and always would be.

‘Go on, get it out of your system,’ grinned Haddon.

‘I’m going to!’ I reached deep inside myself, down to the place I’d found with the orrery in the dark of the night, and whatever it had unblocked. ‘You – you –’

Haddon spread his arms. ‘Free shot, Nudie, just for you.’

Suddenly the power surged, unlike anything I had ever felt before. It seared its way down my spine into my shoulders, through muscle, bone and sinew, and along my arms until the flesh felt as though it was on fire. I raised my staff and pointed its iron-shod tip at Haddon’s mocking features. Then hesitated. The college had an absolute prohibition on casting spells at another student, except under the supervision of a senior master.

‘Do your worst, warthog boy,’ said Haddon.

I cracked. ‘Your head is a warthog’s,’ I cried, directing all the fury of my oppressed existence, and every ounce of power I had found, at him.

The tip of my staff flew off, making a metallic click-click-click as it bounced across the flagstones, but there was no flash of light, no sound, no effect at all. The spell had failed.

Haddon’s smile faded a little. He looked puzzled. ‘What was that about, scholarship boy?’

But on the last two words his voice deepened, the words stretching out until they were almost indecipherable. He doubled over, groaning, then snapped upright and clutched at his cheeks with his big hands.

His face was lengthening, his whole head growing longer. Four wart-like protrusions appeared on his cheeks and swelled to the size of plums. His blue eyes turned mud-brown, dragged to the sides of his face and almost disappeared in masses of leathery brown, wrinkled and bristly skin. His mouth became snout-like. The white, even teeth turned yellow and two on either side grew monstrously, curving outwards and upwards until they were like long, ivory daggers.

I’d burned my bridges this time but I didn’t care. The spell would only last for a minute or two, but while it did Haddon would know what it felt like to be a real, suffering human being, oppressed for no reason but his looks. For the first time in my life I had power, and I raised my staff to the sky and roared in exultation.

Haddon’s head sagged, then he began to breathe in desperate, strangled gasps as if his neck could not support the massive warthog’s head. He reeled around, choking, and fell down, snout gaping, dagger-sharp lower tusks rasping against the massive upper ones. Strings of brown saliva oozed across his hairy lower lip.

‘You little bastard, what have you done?’ roared Haddon’s square-faced friend, Vim.

‘Haddon’s dying!’ screamed Jaelie, a tall girl whose ringlets of yellow hair stuck out for six inches on either side of her face. ‘Call Master Vish. Quick!’

‘He’s putting on an act,’ I said, not sure I believed it myself.

A slender, freckled redhead came running, then propped, staring at Haddon in horror. Sissily Bur, his girlfriend, was a quiet, kindly girl, and one of the few who had never been rude to me. She went to her knees beside him, trying to turn his gigantic head into the recovery position so he would not choke.

‘Look out for the tusks,’ cried Jaelie.

Haddon’s warthog head heaved violently and its right tusk speared between the bones of Sissily’s arm above her right wrist, impaling her and dragging her towards the champing mouth.

She shrieked. Jaelie heaved Sissily’s arm free and dragged her backwards. Blood poured from the inch-wide hole in her arm, running down her hand and dripping from her fingernails. Jaelie wound a scarf around the wound a dozen times and knotted it tightly.

On the ground, Haddon thrashed and choked. Sissily went as white as plaster and slumped against Jaelie, looking as though she was going to faint. She clung there for a few seconds, rubbing her face and leaving streaks of blood across it, then turned to me.

‘Undo the spell, Nudie.’

I couldn’t speak; it felt as though my tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth.

‘Nudie …’ Sissily reached out to me. Blood was dripping through the bandage. ‘Undo the spell and we’ll pretend it never happened.’

‘I … don’t know how.’

‘It’s a metamorphism spell,’ said Jaelie. ‘A spell forbidden to all save the greatest adepts. No one can pretend it never happened.’

I began to back away. I had no idea how I’d done it; I’d simply spoken the words without having any spell in mind. Now, staring down at the gasping Head Boy, I knew I could no more reverse what I’d done than I could turn an orange into a turnip. Aftersickness rose in me, as it always did after I worked powerful mancery. My head was spinning, my knees were wobbly and I felt an almost irresistible urge to vomit. I turned to run.

‘Stop him!’ said Vish, striding across the courtyard.

Students surrounded me. I swung my staff out and pointed it towards them with a shaking hand. They froze. ‘Don’t come any closer,’ I said in a high, strained voice.

‘Take him!’ roared Vish.

Still they hesitated.

‘He’s weak with aftersickness. He can’t do it twice.’

I tried to cast a paralysis spell on the nearest student but I had nothing left – whatever talent the orrery had unblocked before was blocked again. I turned to run. I had no idea where, though if I could not get out of Blaggart I was finished. But before I took three steps someone tackled me and brought me down. My hands were bound behind my back with the sash of my robes, then they sat on me until Vish swept up.

He studied Haddon, who was still panting and drooling, for half a minute, then looked at me sideways. A strange look crept across the Head Master’s angular face. He seemed afraid; the flesh sagged beneath his skin. Then the military training of his youth reasserted itself and he snapped out orders.

‘Take Haddon to the infirmary. Call the senior masters together. We’ve got to reverse this curse, right now.’ He turned to the Head Girl, forcing a yellow-toothed smile. ‘It won’t take long, Sissily. Useless Nudie can’t have done anything serious.’

He picked up my staff and looked me up and down. ‘You’re expelled, scholarship boy. But first –’ Vish raised his voice, addressing the college guards. ‘Take him to the flogging place.’

 

One Throw of the Die

Spoiler alert!

If you haven’t read my epic fantasy quartet The Well of Echoes, and intend to, you should do so before reading One Throw of the Die, since it begins immediately after Chimaera, the final book of The Well of Echoes, and necessarily gives away the entire ending.

 

1

When Jal-Nish, shockingly burned though he was, reached Gatherer and Reaper first, Flydd knew it was over. The two enchanted tears were too powerful. The war, and perhaps the world itself was lost, and all the allies could do was run for their miserable lives.

‘Come on!’ Flydd ran, his cloak trailing smoke, for their one hope of escape – Jal-Nish’s air-dreadnought.

Yggur, a very tall, lean man, took off like a hare through the smoke. Klarm raced after him, the dwarf’s stubby legs making three strides to Yggur’s one. The others followed, not looking back.

As Flydd reached the air-dreadnought, a huge craft with a sausage-shaped cabin sixty feet long, suspended by cables below three long airbags, Sergeant Flangers came running around the edge of the crowd, carrying the pilot, Chissmoul. She was a small, painfully shy young woman who became a laughing extravert at the controls of a flying machine, but she was not laughing now.

Yggur blasted down one of the guards with jagged white fire. Fyn-Mah, a slender, black-haired woman in her thirties, killed the other with a backhanded blow to the throat. She and General Troist scrambled inside. Klarm was not far behind.

Flydd took the weapons from the dead guards – two swords and a stubby, red-handled knife – and panted up the wobbling plank. ‘Chissmoul! Can you fly this thing?’

‘Nodes dead,’ she said dully. ‘Fields gone. No power!’

‘I’ve got a charged crystal,’ said Klarm, producing it. It was two inches long and half an inch through, yellow-green at one end grading to red at the other. ‘Will it do?’

She snatched it as if it was a lifeline, and it was, for flying was life and soul to her. She tied the crystal onto her forehead with a brown bootlace. Her hands were shaking. She took hold of the control levers and closed her eyes, drawing power from the crystal and, in a process no one but pilots understood, funnelling it to the triple rotors at the stern. They began to revolve.

Flydd handed one sword to Flangers, buckled on the other and gave the knife to Troist. The general, a stocky, handsome man, was slumped in a canvas seat, head in hands.

‘You all right?’ said Flydd.

Troist stared at him, frozen-faced, then nodded stiffly.

Flydd did the count and came up short. ‘Where’s Nish and Irisis?’

‘Taken!’ said Klarm in the tone a judge would use to pronounce sentence of death.

Pain sheared through Flydd’s scrawny chest. ‘We’ve got to go back –’

‘No, we agreed,’ said Yggur. ‘Anyone who falls behind must be abandoned to give the others hope of escape. The struggle is going to be a long one.’

Flydd knew it, but bridled at the lecture. ‘But Irisis – Nish! Without them, none of us would be here.’

‘If we go back, Jal-Nish will take us and all hope will be lost. Besides, he won’t harm his own son …’

‘But Jal-Nish hates Irisis more than anyone in the world.’ The thought of her in his hands was unbearable.

‘They’re coming!’ yelled Klarm. ‘Pilot, get this thing up! Flangers, Troist, cast off the rear ropes. Yggur, you take this side, I’ll do the other.’

Everyone ran to their posts. Flydd stood beside the pilot, looking back at the town square of Ashmode and its litter of bodies, people he’d fought beside for years. In the middle of the square, Jal-Nish was doubled over in agony inside the protective barrier he had conjured around himself. But the moment he recovered, all the power of the tears would be at his disposal.

And only Flydd, a small, skinny, ageing man, to stand in his way.

He could see his distorted reflection in the curving binnacle around the controls. Deeply sunken black eyes, shaded by a continuous eyebrow. A face that appeared to have had all the meat pared from it, leaving mere bone, skin and sinew. Fingers twisted as if they had been broken in a torture chamber, then set by someone who knew nothing about bones. And they had.

How was he to stop Jal-Nish? With the fields gone, Flydd could not use the Secret Art. Yet there had to be a way to save Nish and Irisis. Think, think!

The air-dreadnought lifted at the stern, drifted towards a patch of trees, then the bow ropes were cast off and the airbags full of floater-gas propelled it upwards.

Yggur yelled at Chissmoul. ‘Get us out of sight!’

She worked her levers, directing the big craft away from the square.

‘Hold it!’ said Flydd. ‘There’s one chance, but we’ve got to act right now.’

‘How?’ said Yggur.

‘Dive at Jal-Nish, full bore, and smash him against the wall of his barrier. I doubt that anyone could survive such an impact, but if he does cling to life we cut him down and grab the tears.’

‘It’s risky –’

‘If we give him the chance to recover he’ll take the whole of Lauralin within a year. What do you say, Klarm? Troist?’

Flydd looked at each of the six in turn. Troist nodded absently. He did not appear to be listening.

‘Yes,’ they said, and finally Yggur agreed.

‘Go!’ Flydd said to Chissmoul.

She let out a wild whoop. The rotors roared and she wrenched on her levers, skidding the huge craft into a manoeuvre it had never been designed for. The cabin wobbled from side to side, tossing Troist off his chair; they shot over the trees, heading back towards the town square.

‘There he is!’ Flydd pointed. ‘And the barrier is down. Fly, Chissmoul!’

Jal-Nish was doubled over, clutching his face and clearly in great pain. Irisis was on her knees, neck bared, her yellow hair flying in the wind, watching him in an attitude of proud defiance. A guard held her down. Nish was several yards away. A second guard handed him a sword, and it was clear what he was supposed to do with it.

Suddenly Nish leapt at his father, swinging the sword in a violent arc.

‘Faster!’ Flydd roared. ‘Brace yourselves.’

The rotors howled. The air-dreadnought dived. Wind whistled past the cabin, which began to shake wildly. A cupboard door flew open; bags of dried peas fell out and one burst, scattering yellow peas everywhere.

But then Jal-Nish stood up, renewed the protection with a single gesture and a luminous blue sphere surrounded him. Nish’s sword glanced off it in a spray of red-hot sparks and he was thrown backwards off his feet.

Jal-Nish turned to face the hurtling air-dreadnought. He raised the tears, two silvery, grapefruit-sized globes, the residuum of an exploded node. Even over the sound of the rotor Flydd could hear a high-pitched hum, the song of the tears.

They were made of nihilium, the purest substance in the world, and it was coveted by mancers because it took the print of the Secret Art more readily than any other form of matter, and bound it far more tightly. The tears were worth the value of a continent – and Jal-Nish planned to use them to take one.

He plunged his hand into Reaper and the left-hand airbag burst with an ear-stinging bang. Chissmoul let out a howl. The air-dreadnought rolled onto its side and hurtled off course; she fought desperately to prevent it from plunging at high speed into the trees.

The second guard, the one with Irisis, drew his sword. Nish ran at him but he was not going to get there in time. The air-dreadnought wobbled again and, momentarily, Flydd lost sight of the scene. He turned to see.

‘Don’t look back,’ grated Klarm, catching Flydd by the arm and trying to haul him away.

He looked back.

2

Flydd was a hard and ruthless scrutator who had done whatever it took to win the war against the alien lyrinx. For thirty years he had schemed, manipulated, threatened and blackmailed. He had sent many a prisoner to be flogged or tortured, had ordered his country’s enemies strangled in the dark, and commanded whole armies to what turned out to be their doom. Most of his friends and allies were dead and he had long expected his own bloody demise.

He had thought himself inured to death, but he was wrong. He could neither bear Irisis’s death, nor accept it. ‘She was the bravest of us, and the best,’ he said brokenly. ‘Why did she have to die?’

The question had no answer.

Chissmoul regained control and levelled out, only twenty feet above the trees. To Flydd’s right, a few hundred yards away, the dry plains of Ashmode ended in a cliff. Below it was the monumental slope, broken into sections by seven more sets of cliffs and incised from top to bottom by gigantic canyons, that descended twelve thousand vertical feet to the greatest gulf in the Three Worlds – the Dry Sea. Until two thousand years ago it had been the beautiful Sea of Perion and, at the rate it was refilling through the recently unblocked Hornrace, it would soon be a sea again.

Klarm, the dwarf scrutator, a good-looking man with a mane of swept-back brown hair and dazzlingly blue eyes, sat Flydd down and put an arm across his shoulders.

‘If I’d got us going ten seconds sooner –’ said Flydd.

‘There’s no point, old friend! Irisis faced her death as magnificently as anyone could. I hope I can do the same.’

Yggur limped up to them: tall, lean, hard, and beaten. His face was grey. ‘We tried.’

Flydd tried to rouse himself from the overwhelming despair. ‘We’ve got to try again.’

‘No, we’ve got to survive so we can fight Jal-Nish when we’re strong again – if that ever happens.’

‘If we let him recover he’ll never give us the opportunity. It has to be now. Chissmoul, go around.’

The little pilot did not move. Her face was bloodless, her knuckles white.

‘Chissmoul?’ Flydd said sharply.

‘Can’t!’

‘Why not?’

‘Crystal – draining. Soon finished.’

‘How soon?’

‘Ten minutes. Five?’

‘There’s got to be a way to get more power. Surely someone has a crystal?’

‘Jal-Nish’s guards took everything we had,’ said Fyn-Mah.

‘They couldn’t take Yggur’s gift,’ said Flydd. ‘And it doesn’t rely on fields. Yggur, can’t you channel power to Chissmoul?’

‘I don’t know how,’ said Yggur. ‘Besides, given that Jal-Nish will soon rouse the whole world against us, I’m keeping my power in reserve.’

‘But we’ve got to attack!’ cried Flydd. Why couldn’t they see? ‘This is our last chance.’

‘If we go near him again he’ll burst the other two airbags, and we’ll all die. Chissmoul, how far can you go before the rotors stop?’

‘Few leagues.’

The air-dreadnought was now tracking east along the cliffs, towards the chasm of the distant Hornrace. With every lurch the spilled peas rattled back and forth across the floor.

‘Once we set down, Jal-Nish’s riders will catch us within the hour,’ said Flangers, a lean, even-featured man with a shock of fair hair and a strong, jutting jaw.

‘We don’t have to set down,’ said Flydd. ‘This craft can stay in the air for days on two airbags.’

‘But without rotors it’s at the mercy of the winds,’ said Fyn-Mah. ‘And whether they sweep us north, south, east or west, we’re liable to end up in the sea. Then, sooner or later, we’ll drown. We’ve got to split up. Some of us might survive.’

‘Never fly again,’ wailed Chissmoul. ‘Might as well be dead.’

She yanked on the left-hand control lever. The suspended cabin jerked wildly from side to side, for the cables, previously taut, had gone slack when the airbag burst. The air-dreadnought plunged down steeply, throwing everyone but her off their feet.

Flydd’s foot came down on several of the hard yellow peas, which rolled under him. He fell backwards, cracking the back of his head on a bulkhead. The others slid down towards the rear of the cabin. White dots whirled before his eyes. He lay there, head downwards, dazed.

Flangers, favouring a twisted wrist, scrambled up the steeply sloping floor towards Chissmoul. She was clinging to the control levers, eyes closed and teeth bared.

‘Chissmoul?’ he said gently.

Flydd was amazed at his self-possession. But then, Flangers, good soldier and all-too-human man that he was, a man to whom duty was everything, often surprised.

Flangers reached her feet. ‘Chissmoul? It’s me.’

Through a porthole, Flydd saw yellow cliffs streaking past, perilously close. Chissmoul had lost it. The wild plunge had taken them over the edge, but even if they survived a crash, on the mostly barren slope down to the Dry Sea the air-dreadnought would be visible for miles.

Flangers caught her ankle. Her eyes sprang open and she tried to kick him out of the way. He leapt up, grabbed the right-hand lever and yanked hard. The air-dreadnought lurched the other way. Chissmoul let out a shriek and began beating at his face with her small fists.

‘How dare you touch my controls!’ she shrieked. ‘Get away!’

One fist caught him on the nose. The air-dreadnought lurched again and now no one was at the controls. Flangers fell, slid across the sloping floor on his back and crashed head-first into the cabin door.

The catch clicked, then the door began to slide open. He slipped inexorably towards the gap, clawing at the smooth floor but unable to get a grip. The door slid a little further open. As he slipped closer, he managed to dig two fingers into a join in the floor, but his injured wrist could not hold his weight on such a steep slope.

He was going to fall out.

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