The Immortal Heights
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The boy fell.
All about him, fire raged. Black smoked billowed against the night sky, obscuring the stars. In the distance wyverns dove and screeched, their silhouettes lit by their own flames, coppery light upon darkly iridescent scales.
“No!” someone screamed. “No!”
But the boy heard nothing. His heart had already stopped beating.
Somewhere in the most immense desert on earth, about a thousand miles south of the Mediterranean Sea and just as far west of the Red Sea, rose a line of sheer sandstone cliffs. High in the night sky above this escarpment hung an enormous, flame-bright beacon, the war phoenix, the light of which cast an orange sheen for miles upon the surrounding dunes.
Beneath the war phoenix, the air appeared slightly distorted, due to the presence of a bell jar dome, which, when deployed in war, kept an opposing force penned firmly inside.
The bell jar dome had been put into place by Atlantis, the mightiest empire to ever bestride the mage world, headed by the Bane, the most powerful and feared mage alive. Trapped under the dome were a regiment of several hundred rebels who had neither handsome uniforms nor fire-breathing steeds, but only desert robes and flying carpets. Some rebels wore turbans and keffiyehs; others, roused from sleep and dressed in a hurry, were bareheaded.
Among this ragtag group of resistance fighters, looking not a bit out of place, were the Bane’s quarries: His Serene Highness Prince Titus VII, Master of the Domain, and Miss Iolanthe Seabourne, the great elemental mage of their time.
From the day Iolanthe first summoned a bolt of lightning, she had been pursued by the agents of Atlantis. But it was not until recently that she learned the simple yet grotesque reason that the Bane wanted her: to power a feat of sacrificial magic that would prolong his life and maintain his chokehold on power.
Now surrounded, she was in a fight for her life. But at this very moment, she was not thinking about herself—not entirely, in any case. Her gaze was on the boy who shared her flying carpet, the one who held her hand tightly in his own.
Sometimes it amazed her that she had met him only a little over six months ago—it seemed as if they had spent their entire lives together, both running from and charging toward danger. She almost could not remember a time before she had been swept into this vortex of destiny, before she had made it her life’s ambition to end the Bane’s reign of tyranny.
His eyes met hers. He was afraid—she knew this because he did not hide his fear from her—but beyond the fear was an unbreakable will. All his life he had prepared for toil, peril, and the ultimate sacrifice.
She squeezed his hand. We will outlive this.
In her other hand she held Validus, the blade wand that had once belonged to Titus the Great, unifier of the Domain. She raised the wand high. Instantly, white arcs of electricity leaped across the star-studded sky. It had staggered her in the beginning and it staggered her still, that such sway should be granted to a mere mortal.
A shaft of thunderbolt plunged toward the desert, almost like the trunk of a brilliant tree growing from the top down. As it pierced through the war phoenix, the huge beacon shimmered and expanded.
Purpose surged in her veins. The sizzle of electricity was a rising tide in her blood. And a wildness beat in her heart—no more pretense, no more running, only drive against drive, power against power.
With an almost inaudible crackle, her lightning fizzled upon a shield that had been set outside the bell jar dome.
Cries of dismay rose all around her, drowning out her own gasp. She swore and reached for the elements again. Dozens of thunderbolts struck the shield, like so many brilliant needles thrown against a pincushion, or the fireworks of a new year’s celebration gone mad.
The shield held.
A resounding silence echoed in her head.
“There is no surprising Atlantis twice,” said Titus, with far greater calm than she felt.
Hours earlier—so much had happened since, it felt as if weeks, perhaps even months had passed—the two of them had been sniffed out of their hiding place and surrounded by wyvern riders. Iolanthe, with her memories still suppressed, had decided that there was no harm in trying to see whether the hidden writing on the strap of her satchel, especially the line The day we met, lightning struck, had been literal. She’d called forth a thunderbolt that had incapacitated the wyvern riders, enabling Titus and herself to escape to temporary safety.
But this time Atlantis had come prepared. This time her command over lightning would not avail her.
As if to underscore Atlantis’s advantage, the wyvern battalion roared en masse, a clamor that rattled her lungs against her rib cage. The wyverns had hovered in a tight formation, but now two prongs, like those of a pincer, thrust forward from the dark reptilian mass, companies of wyverns advancing to enclose the rebels in the middle.
The air displaced by their wings made the carpet beneath her bobble, like a raft on a sea growing choppier by the minute. The heat of their breath, even from a distance, prickled against her skin. And though she could not smell them through the mask she wore at the rebels’ advice, her nostrils felt as if they burned with the stink of sulfur.
Mohandas Kashkari, Titus and Iolanthe’s classmate from Eton College, yanked to a stop next to them. “We need to get into formation.”
Belatedly, Iolanthe noticed that the rebels had maneuvered into groups of three.
“Two on offense, one on defense—that’s me,” Kashkari explained hurriedly as he helped Titus and Iolanthe onto individual carpets. “The carpets I’m giving you have been subordinated to mine—I’ll steer for the group. Make sure to keep me in sight.”
The carpets had been formed into an L shape, with a bottom ledge for standing on, a long vertical side for holding the rider upright, and the upper end rolled down to make a comfortable yet firm hand rest at waist height.
“Better fight standing up,” said Kashkari.
Iolanthe kissed Titus on his cheek just before Kashkari set their carpets to the correct distance apart.
“May the might of the Angels propel you to unimaginable heights,” said her beloved.
It was an old benediction, from a time when the powers of elemental mages decided the fate of realms. She sucked in a breath. The battle was fought around her; did its outcome also hinge on her?
“May Fortune shield you against all enemies,” she replied, her voice trembling just a little. “You too, Kashkari.”
“May Fortune shield us all.” Kashkari’s answer was grim but firm. “And don’t lose sight of me.”
Her carpet leaped to the left. Her fingers dug into the hand rest—she hadn’t expected the motion. Now she understood Kashkari’s repeated instructions: she needed to keep him in view so that some part of her consciousness would attend to his subtle shifts of weight and prepare her for any abrupt changes in direction or velocity.
“Does the base have any strategy for dealing with a siege?” Titus asked Kashkari, his voice raised above the general din, as squads of rebels zigzagged about them, calling out to one another in a variety of languages.
“No,” Kashkari answered, maneuvering them toward the center of the crowd. “Our strategy, in case of discovery, has always been to evacuate personnel and equipment as swiftly as possible—not to stay and fight.”
But with the bell jar dome in place, that preferred option was gone. They all must stay and fight.
“Are you all right?” Titus asked her. “Sleepy?”
Less than three days ago, they had come to in the middle of the Sahara, knowing nothing of how they’d arrived there, knowing only that they must not fall into the grasp of Atlantis. But no sooner had they started their escape when they found out that Iolanthe had been penned in by a blood circle tailored specifically for her. Even with Titus weakening the power of the blood circle and the help of both a triple dose of panacea and a time-freeze spell, it almost killed Iolanthe to cross the blood circle. The panacea had since kept her under near-constant sedation, to preserve her life.
She had seldom been more awake, her nerves vibrating.
The rebels zoomed by, crisscrossing her vision. Beyond them, the wyverns, spread like a fisherman’s net. And beyond them . . .
With all the chaos, she hadn’t noticed that though a large number of wyvern riders had entered the bell jar dome, even more remained outside.
The arrival of allies was the surest way of breaking a siege—and she and Titus did have friends nearby: forces from the Domain were in the Sahara, alerted to the prince’s presence by a war phoenix he’d deployed two nights ago. But could they breach this defense?
“Is anyone working on the translocators?” she asked, her chest tight.
Translocators provided instantaneous transport to distant destinations. The rebel base had two, but neither were functioning.
“Yes,” answered Kashkari.
He did not sound entirely confident. Not to mention, they didn’t know whether the rebels’ translocators had suffered a simple breakdown or whether they had been compromised by Atlantis. Once a translocator had been compromised, there was no telling where a mage would end up.
Her uncertainty must have shown in her face. “Don’t worry,” said Kashkari. “We will protect you.”
He had misunderstood her—she wished she could protect them. She knew the rebels had volunteered for a life of danger; but if it weren’t for her, they would not be facing the deadliness of the wyvern battalion this very moment. “I can fight.”
“And so can we. We may not have a specific plan of counterattack in case of siege, but we have trained for wyverns, which are not without weaknesses.”
One might find an opportunity to attack a wyvern’s tender underbelly—if one could last long enough before its fire and viciousness. She would have that opportunity: the Bane wanted her alive and in good shape; a dead elemental mage was useless in sacrificial magic. The prince too stood a chance: the satisfaction of getting rid of him was probably not worth an all-out war with the Domain, which though well past its days of glory, still had enough might and mage power to be a thorn in Atlantis’s side. Not to mention such a war would render Atlantis vulnerable to attacks on other fronts.
The wyverns spewed fire, a latticework hemisphere of flames crashing toward the rebels. A chorus of spell-casting rose. Most of the dragon fire was stopped by a wall of shields, but here and there the tassels and fringes of a carpet caught fire. Iolanthe had become accustomed to the more modern flying carpets, which resembled tablecloths and curtains more than they did actual rugs. But the carpets used in battle were of a more traditional appearance, a good deal thicker and sturdier than their counterparts meant for disguise and ease of carrying.
She commanded the fires on the carpets to extinguish themselves. Already the rebels on the front line were on the counterattack, diving lower so they could aim at the wyverns from underneath. Iolanthe expected at least a couple of wyverns to rear back in pain, their wings flapping wildly.
No reaction. It was as if the rebels had emitted rose petals and dandelion puffs, instead of spells that would have slaughtered elephants and rhinoceroses.
Shouts erupted in languages Iolanthe couldn’t identify, let alone understand.
“The wyverns are armored,” Kashkari interpreted. “Not metal, but plates of dragon hide on the belly.”
Wyverns tolerated metal armor—dragon hide plates, not so much. Whether they clearly understood that they were being strapped into contraptions that had once been body parts of their own kind, nobody knew. But wyverns were intelligent enough that anything made of dragon hide repelled them.
Which meant that they had been given taming draughts ahead of time, so they wouldn’t struggle against the donning of the plates. A taming draught given before a battle slowed a wyvern’s normally lightning-quick reflexes. Atlantis must have decided that the protection of the plates outweighed the disadvantages of the taming draught.
“They are prepared for you,” said Titus.
Of course. Metal plates against the most susceptible parts of the wyverns would have put them in danger when faced with a mage who command fire. Dragon hide, on the other hand, was immune to ordinary fire.
But it wasn’t immune to dragon fire.
She pointed her wand and routed a stream of dragon fire back at the wyvern that had spewed it. The wyvern’s rider yanked it sharply to the side to avoid the jet of flames. She gathered the flames of two nearby wyverns into two fireballs and hurtled them at the same wyvern, narrowly missing the ridge of one wing.
A noise like a thousand sharp claws scratching upon a thousand windowpanes grated against her eardrums. Instantly the night turned darker. She held her breath for several heartbeats before she realized that it wasn’t some new and frightfully powerful act of sorcery on Atlantis’s part. It was only that all the wyverns had stopped spewing fire.
So that she could not use their own fire against them.
You cannot surprise Atlantis twice.
The wyverns, without their fire, were scarcely less deadly. The sharpness of their talons and the toughness of their wings were matched only by their fierce intelligence. They advanced on the rebels, teeth and claws at the ready.
“I do not like this,” Titus said darkly.
“You never like anything, darling.” But she liked it no better than he did.
The wyverns advanced from all directions. The rebels retreated toward the center of their formation. The wyverns pushed in farther. The rebels pulled tighter.
All at once the wyverns on the front line charged. The rebels scattered like a school of fish bombarded by diving cormorants. Kashkari yanked Titus and Iolanthe left and up to get out of the way of a pair of hard-driving wyverns. Iolanthe, who’d forgotten again to keep Kashkari in her sight, grabbed onto her carpet, its motion a hard jerk in her neck.
More wyverns careened into the rebels, forcing each three-mage squad to fend for itself. Kashkari veered them to the right, to avoid being struck by a wyvern’s wing. Iolanthe called for a ten-foot-wide sphere of fire and hurled it at the rider of the nearest wyvern—wyverns could not be harmed by ordinary fire; riders, not so invincible.
The wyvern knocked aside the fireball with its wing. Iolanthe summoned a fireball twice as big in diameter and sent it plummeting from above the wyvern rider.
A few feet from the head of the wyvern rider, her fire went out like a candle flame in a gale. She swore—there were other elemental mages nearby, interfering.
Or at least so she hoped—that it was other elemental mages, and not the Bane himself, as powerful an elemental mage as any who ever lived.
A trio of wyverns dove toward them. Kashkari swerved, Iolanthe hanging on tight to her carpet, a string of spells leaving her lips as she zoomed by a wyvern—all of which, alas, were deflected by the wyvern’s wings.
“Kashkari, untether my carpet, and you get Fairfax back into the base,” Titus shouted.
Her beloved never feared anything without cause. But all Iolanthe could see were wyvern riders and rebels on carpets wheeling all about. A fraction of a second later, however, it became clear that the three of them had been separated from the rest of the rebels and were surrounded by wyverns.
Without thinking, she willed a mass of sand to rise from the desert floor. The riders wore protective goggles, and the wyverns had hardy but transparent inner eyelids that made their vision impervious to flying specks. Still, sand impeded and sand obscured. If nothing else, a tornado of sand would make her feel less visible, less exposed.
But the desert floor seemed to have melted into a sea of glass. Not a single grain of sand leaped into the air at her command. The wyverns pressed in closer. She called for currents of air to push them back. The moment she did so, however, she felt the pressure of countercurrents—Atlantis’s elemental mages were neutralizing her on every front.
She was not alone in her failure. Titus and Kashkari were trying all kinds of spells to no avail. She didn’t know about Kashkari; the prince was a veteran of dragon battles—at least in the Crucible, a book of folklore and fairy tales that he and Iolanthe used as proving grounds to train themselves for dangerous situations. But usually, in those stories, the dragons were few in number. And if they should be numerous, as in The Dragon Princess, at least the protagonist had a sturdy defensive position, like a dilapidated but still mighty fort, instead of flying carpets that provided no cover at all.
“Can I vault her into the base, or is that a no-vaulting zone?” Titus shouted the question at Kashkari.
“It’s a no-vaulting zone!”
Earlier this very night, he had made the two of them jump to the ground from a height of half a mile, with nothing to break their fall but her powers over air, because he hadn’t wanted to risk vaulting her: vaulting so soon after a life-threatening injury could kill her outright.
Were they truly running out of options?