Alko's flybubble was a blue and green airship equipped with at least a dozen propellers that were painted with virulent vermilion spirals which were so dazzling that they almost called for sunglasses. The gondola was open, but there were metal hoops over the top, suggesting that some sort of a cover could be rigged if necessary. Lord Alko was busying himself at the prow end, where an array of cogs and levers formed the control panel.
The ship rose slowly and silently, and then the big propellers began to spin, the ship turned towards its destination and began to move forwards through the warm evening air.
Julian was entranced: here once again was that marvellous sense of total happiness he had experienced in his dreams. This was the way to fly – a gentle, silent cruise on a deck open to the fresh air, as opposed to being cooped up in the cramped cabin of a roaring jet plane. How could people have abandoned such a perfect means of travel?
He jumped when a a huge blue scarab with scarlet legs suddenly landed on the rail next to his hand. It was almost as big as his hand, in fact, and could have passed for a massive jewel. Now that was something you didn't see inside an aeroplane!
The white city was now spread out before them, although in the light of the setting sun it seemed to be made of gold and copper instead. And then, as they approached their destination, the sun disappeared over the horizon and night fell.
Julian gasped: at the same moment all of the towers stared to radiate light. It wasn't like the way buildings are lit up with light coming through their windows: instead it was the buildings themselves that started to glow with a sort of bioluminescence that started at ground level and spread progressively upwards until it reached the very tip of each tower. Each building had its own shade of colour, which blended harmoniously with those of the towers around it. The result was both wonderful and somehow disconcerting, as if some giant had poured the light of an immense rainbow over them.
The rest of the city was lit up as well, but in a more orthodox fashion, as thousands of windows emitted a golden light into the air. The stars overhead were shining too, and in the clear air of this world they seemed to Julien to be closer than ever.
"It's beautiful!" he breathed.
"It's the most beautiful city in the Nine Worlds," agreed Niil. "There's nothing to match this anywhere, not even on Dvârinn."
They were getting close to the harbour, the point where the river widened out into the lake. From up here the waters of the lake themselves were like a dark nothingness, but garlanded at its edge by the shining lights of the port area. Julian was leaning out, trying to see the place where they had moored their boat that afternoon, when he heard a sort of stifled groan coming from the front of the ship. He straightened up just in time to see Lord Alko put both hands to his neck and then collapse onto the deck. Then Niil shoved him violently onto the deck himself, at the same time yelling to Izkya, who was sitting in the stern, "Get down! Someone's shooting at us!"
In confirmation of this there were two thwacking noises from the ship's side, as if something had hit it and stuck there. It didn't take a lot of imagination to conjure up a picture of arrows, or possibly – more probably, even - crossbow darts.
Julien had hit his head on the deck, but that was the least of his concerns: he was thinking that the people attacking them were unlikely to stop with the killing of Alko, and also that a flybubble makes an awfully easy target. And if they fell a few hundred feet onto the houses below, they would be every bit as dead as they would be if an arrow or dart actually hit them. He turned to Niil.
"We've got to try landing," he said. "Can you fly this thing?"
"I might be able to," said Izkya, who had wriggled her way to join them. "Alko's been showing me how."
Her voice was trembling, and it was only the need to do something that was keeping her from outright panic.
Alko was still making horrible gurgling noises, but they were becoming feebler. It was clear that he was dying, but there was nothing they could do for him. Izkya took a deep breath and started moving forwards on her hands and knees.
"Watch out!" warned Niil. "Keep your head down!"
At the same time they heard a new noise above their heads: the unmistakable hiss of escaping gas.
"Shit!" exclaimed Julien. "They've punctured the gasbag!"
"It's strong material," Niil replied. "It won't tear open..."
He was fairly obviously trying, not entirely successfully, to convince himself as well as his companions.
By now the boys had followed Izkya to the pilot's position. They were reluctant to touch Alko, who was now silent, but his body was stopping anyone from reaching the controls. Another missile pinged off a metal panel somewhere, and that was enough to stir Julien into action: he grabbed the dead man's shoulders and pulled as hard as he could. The body rolled over, revealing a chest that was drenched in blood that looked black in the twilight. There was no sign of an arrow or dart, which must have ripped his throat open and then continued on its way.
Izkya groped over her head, found a lever and pulled, and the ship veered to the right. She pulled on another and the ship started to descend. They heard more impacts overhead, which would mean more holes in the gasbag, and now Julien could feel that the ship was going down quite quickly.
"You've got to get us over the lake!" shouted Niil.
Izkya was kneeling up, trying to identify the controls. The ship was zigzagging – it certainly wasn't acting like a 'dirigible' any more – and the canvas propellers were spinning madly as the ship fell through the air. Finally she found the correct levers and the aircraft, still lurching and swaying wildly, started heading towards the black expanse of the lake.
Julien gripped the rail and strained his eyes into the night, trying to find the enemy. Obviously they could only be in another flying machine, but because the ships were almost soundless he had no idea which way he should be looking. Next to him Niil popped his head above the rail, trying his hardest to work out where they were so that he could call out directions to Izkya, who had to keep her head down so as not to share the fate of the pilot.
They were a lot closer to the rooftops now. Julien felt almost as if he was in a lift whose cables had snapped. He could hear loose cloth flapping overhead, which was louder than the hiss of escaping gas.
"That's it!" cried Niil. "We're over the harbour!"
Well, thought Julien, at least they weren't going to end up splattered like a bug on a windscreen.
"We're going to have to jump!" he yelled. He had just realised that they were certain to die if they got caught underneath the collapsed gasbag or snagged on the frame of the sinking airship. But when he glanced overboard he couldn't tell how far above the water they were: the water was too smooth and there wasn't enough light. To judge from the lights of the port, though, they couldn't be very far above the surface.
"We're going to hit it in a moment!" he shouted. "We need to climb over the rail and hang onto the side of the ship, then we can let go when we're low enough."
"But... they'll see us and shoot us!" objected Izkya.
"There's no choice. If we don't jump we'll get trapped in the wreckage and drown," said Niil. "I hope you can swim, Julien."
"Yes, I can."
"Come on, then!"
They climbed over the rail and clung on, hoping they wouldn't have to wait too long. Julien didn't think he'd be able to hang on for very long anyway. But the ship was falling fast, following a glide-path that got steeper all the time. Then he heard Niil's voice.
"Ready? Then... now!"
Julien let go. He caught a tiny glimpse of the blurred glittering of the water below him, and then he felt a violent blow in his back, followed by a sharp pain, which in turn was immediately followed by the sting of the water as he hit the surface and rolled over. As he sank he thought that it was appalling luck to get hit like that at the last possible second.
The water wasn't particularly cold. In fact it was pleasantly cool, and he would have enjoyed swimming in it in other circumstances. But he thought that now, with an arrow probably penetrating his lung, he'd be lucky if he even made it back to the surface. To make things worse, if that was possible, in the complete darkness he couldn't even tell which way was up and which was down. If he tried to swim he could just as easily force himself deeper instead of climbing back towards the life-giving air...
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