MERcURY IS HoT
We flew northeast, the Osprey bouncing along like we were on a state road in need of major maintenance after said state’s major budget cuts. Seriously, could you have potholes in the air? I’m not bad with flying but the last trip through the air I took was on Loredana’s custom private jet. That was as smooth as sliding into bed.
“Hey!” I propped myself inside the cockpit door. “You want to keep it on the road up there?”
“Friend, you’d best keep your rear end back in this bird’s rear end, snug and strapped in.” Cope had both hands on the controls, the muscles in his arms taut like steel cables but his voice as friendly as if we were sharing a beer on the bayside Promenade. “I don’t cotton to mouthy passengers. And I reckon you don’t want your skull bouncing off the ceiling when we hit the big bumps.”
“The big bumps.” The plane jerked suddenly to the left. My shoulder rebounded off the hatch frame. “Like these aren’t big enough?”
“It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. All that there hot air blowing off that fella—thermal updrafts would be great to lift a teratorn looking to soar, but they play havoc with a bird like this.”
He didn’t have to point out “that fella.” I could see the astral fury good enough. It was the writhing blob of flame undulating over the distant hills. Those fiery tendrils lashed every which way, setting trees alight—not that there were many left that hadn’t been charred to a cinder. The air filled with sparks. Smoke clouds caught the ruddy glow from the blaze, giving what should have been a lovely place to hike a hellish appearance.
“Don’t worry about the bumps, I guess.” My stomach twisted. It had nothing to do with the turbulence. “Just get us in close enough we can engage the astral fury.”
“Won’t be able to linger airborne, nearer we get,” Cope said. “I’m not keen on testing heat tolerances.”
“Yeah, well, I want a Maserati but we’re both going to be disappointed, right?” I reached out and slapped his shoulder. “Good job not getting us killed so far.”
Cope chuckled. “High praise, indeed! Let the lady know we’re a few miles out.”
A few miles. Great.
I staggered back to the cargo bay, where everyone else was seated. Except for Bowen and Niall, who were peering out the portholes. How were they not toppling over like drunken frat boys? “Got a few more miles until we can hit the thing!”
“Good!” Niall gestured with his rifle. “Through this hatch?”
“That’s the plan!” A terrifying plan, but the plan, at the moment. Subject to change without warning. “I need you guys to pin it down so I can use the ice gun to do the real damage—with a certain wizard as backup!”
“Summoner,” Bowen said. “And I look forward to ending the beast’s depredations with our combined might.”
“You and me both.”
Wilhelmina had her eyes closed. I touched her knee. Big mistake. A knitting needle sliced through the air. I jerked my hand back, so the needle stabbed between two fingers and poked into the worn-out seat cushion. “Don’t sneak up on a body like that!”
“Easy! I’m checking to make sure you’re okay.”
“Do I look ‘okay,’ child? I may never eat again.”
“That’s too bad, because I could eat an entire pie from Carlito’s. I’d be willing to share.”
One eye cracked open. Stormy blue glared at me. The needle hovered surprisingly still in the tumult of the cargo by. “Say it again, Mercury, and the astral fury won’t be but a pleasant dream.”
“How nice to see morale is unaffected.” Loredana didn’t seem afraid, but she didn’t appear well, either. Her face was a couple shades paler than usual. Freckles stood out like measles. “I suggest you gentlemen work on acquiring a target.”
“Two miles!” Cope yelled.
“Let’s do this.” I reached past Bowen and slapped a switch mounted on the airframe.
The entire bay flooded with red light. An alarm buzzed. The rear door cracked open. Air rushed in—hot air, fresh out of a hairdryer. Sparks and soot swirled around.
“Oh, he’s seen us! I don’t think he’s happy about it.” Cope laughed. “Chin up, fellows, I’ll bank on the port wing and bring us around.”
Bank he did, though how the incline was so gentle I had no clue, not with all the bouncing around the Osprey insisted on maintaining. I retrieved the ice gun and propped it against the frame. Thankfully Liz had rigged up a set of straps that hooked onto the ballistic vest I wore.
Bowen stood four steps away from me, on the hinge where the hatch lowered. The wind blasted at his hair and his clothes. Even without the cape, he looked every bit the majestic sky captain, hands on his hips. A faint blue glow seeped from between his fingers.
“You ready for this?” I shouted as energies poured into the ice gun from the pulsar stave.
He turned. It was a really good thing I’d made a pit stop before we’d departed, because I wasn’t sure how my bladder would have responded to the sight of his piercing, glowing eyes in that blood red environment. Think Superman about to unleash his heat vision, except the light was the coldest, most brilliant white tinged with blue. “I am prepared.”
No backing out.
And there it was.
The astral fury must have had another growth spurt since thrashing downtown San Camillo. I guessed he was a couple hundred feet across, based on the size of the trees beneath him.
“My word,” was all Loredana had.
“Light him up!” I pulled the trigger.
The ice gun bucked in my grip. A spiral of energy slashed through the red night sky, slamming into one pulsating, bulbous side of the giant jellyfish. Steam exploded. Blue blots skittered across its flanks.
“Glacii!” Bowen shouted the word like it was the last sound he was gonna let loose from his lungs. Twin sprays of jagged ice hurtled from his palms. I was super glad it was the astral fury and not me in the crosshairs of Bowen’s hands as those two-foot shards cut through its hide—and I do mean, through. Several blasted apart burning trees on the other side of the monster.
And it was—displeased. I swore its scream shook the Osprey as Cope kept us in a sharp loop around the burned-out clearing.
“Pin it down!” I didn’t know what other commands to issue because, you know, it was my first time using the pulsar stave adapted to a gun that mimicked ice powers. I just let the weapon blast away, the exterior getting colder with each passing second. Feeling the frigid pulsar stave in my hands was one thing. This? I was sure Doc Arne was gonna have to cut off some frostbitten fingers while he repeated, “I told you so.”
Suddenly a column of fire shot into the sky, no more than a car’s length from the Osprey’s tail. The heat bowled us over. Bowen tottered on the edge of the ramp, his boots slipping.
Niall snagged him one-handed, while looping his other arm through stray webbing. “Hold fast!”
“I’d rather you did!” Bowen redirected his palms, showering the column in ice.
It would have dampened the new element pretty well, except another tower shot forth—and then a third.
“Great,” I muttered.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say our little critter down there’s found a new trick to show off!” Wilhelmina cried out.
“You think?” I glanced at Loredana. “See how Cope’s doing!”
“Cope’s been taking a gander at the skies ahead, and they ain’t the welcoming kind!” Cope hollered.
The Osprey slewed sideways and dropped like a rock. I yelped and grabbed for Loredana—not to stop myself from hitting the wall, but to haul her back from the hatch. Everything in the aircraft reversed direction. I couldn’t tell which way we were headed.
All I knew was the flames shooting by the windows were way too close.
“Strap in!” Cope ordered. “Tarnation! You all need to hold on tight while I do my blamedest to get make sure we don’t scorch our feathers!”
Loredana held on to my shoulder as we edged to the cockpit. The engines roared through the metal fuselage. Cope was twisted in his seat, shoulder up, fighting to maintain control. The ground outside, the treetops and the burning grass, were getting nearer.
“Find us a landing zone,” Loredana said. “We’ll set down there and approach the target on foot.”
“Miss Lark, I’ll be frank, there’s not a time I’d disrespect a woman, but I’ll make an exception if you don’t secure yourself!” he snapped. “Sit down and hold on!”
Cope threw the Osprey sideways, flipping up in the opposite direction. I slammed against the cockpit wall. Loredana landed on me, which was better for her. I got a fire extinguisher jammed against my spine as a reward.
But I couldn’t blame Cope for new bruises. His sudden aerobatics had put distance between us and the nearest tower of fire. Another one shot up a few dozen feet from the nose. We were gonna fly right through it and I didn’t want to guess whether or not the Osprey’s fuselage would like taking a flame shower at hundreds of degrees.
Cope muttered and cranked the controls. The plane shuddered and jumped, lifting, racing the pinnacle of the rising column of flames. For a moment, I imagined I could feel heat underfoot—and could smell melting metal. Then we were through it, back into reddish sky.
“There.” Loredana pointed.
All I could see was a black smudge amidst trees backlit with crimson. Landing zone? Looked more like a postage stamp.
“Sharp eyes,” Cope said. “Now if you folks don’t mind, I’d best put this bird down with as minimal fuss as possible.”
He wove the Osprey through more fire columns that sprouted from the ground. How he could see through the thick smoke and past the spray of embers, I had no idea. All I knew was Cope didn’t let himself be distracted by the bang of objects against the fuselage, or warning lights flashing on his console, or shouts from the back of the plane. The Osprey banked left, dodged right, all while dropping nearer to the treetops.
Then we were among them.
The fires had burned a jagged gash through the forest, courtesy of the astral fury’s trek. It made for a great space in which Cope could hide the aircraft from the monster’s attacks; sure enough, as soon as we dipped below the treeline, the fire columns ceased.
Of course, it didn’t hide the fact that we were flying through the forest instead of over it.
“One minute!” Cope reached up and snapped a trio of switches above his head. “Gather your crew and prepare to bail!”
“Bail?” I gave his seat a shove. “You said we were headed for a landing zone!”
“Reckon so! And land we will—for about fifteen seconds, on ten feet of air! Now move!”
Even Loredana didn’t argue with the order. She was already in the cargo bay, shouting commands and strapping on a backpack.
“Everybody up!” I helped Wilhelmina out of her restraints. The bemused part of me wondered if AARP was gonna have my head on a platter for endangering one of their members. I told the bemused part to shut up.
“Are we near to docking this vessel?” Niall asked.
“More like leaping overboard.” I checked the ice gun. The bindings were secure, and I had a good grip on it. Made a mental note to not land on the thing when we jumped.
I fully expected Niall’s complaints and sarcasm, but instead got a shout of joy. “And here I thought this land was only for the faint of heart!”
“Seriously?” I shook my head. “I did tackle the monster three times already.”
“I’m putting her down and everybody had better get out!” Cope yelled.
Trees whipped past the open hatch. Suddenly, the Osprey spun around, and slammed to a halt so fast I almost wound up flat on my face. It bobbed, the wind buffeting its sides, the rotors’ roar whining to a crescendo.
“Boots away!” Niall was the first one off.
Bowen just shook his head and dove after.
Wilhelmina examined the edge of the bouncing ramp. I stood beside her. “Are you sure you’re—?”
“Yep!” She vanished over the edge.
Well okay then.
Loredana took my hand. “Together?”
“Absolutely.” I turned around and gave a sloppy, fake salute. “All yours!”
“Good luck and Thel keep you!” Cope pulled back on the controls.
The ramp and the whole plane tilted precipitously. I let myself slide, then jumped, Loredana alongside.
We hit open air. It was like diving into a dryer, minus the lint trap, but plus scalding embers and suffocating smoke. The ground and I were gonna get acquainted really soon. I twisted, trying to ready my legs for impact.
Blue light suffused everything. My rear end hit a smooth, cold surface, and I slid faster than I had down any playground slide. That includes those slick metal ones that are now considered safety hazards.
Loredana and I tumbled into a crispy shrub. It crumbled under our impact. Bonus: We were covered with enough soot we could have tried out for the Mary Poppins movie sequel, if we could dance as well as chimney sweeps.
I glanced back. A chute of ice was already melting in the intense heat. Had to be twice as long as the Osprey.
Bowen shook his right hand, as if he were trying to get feeling back into his digits. “What good would it do us to leap into battle only to be killed in the fall?”
“Wise guy and handy to have around.” I helped Loredana up.
The Osprey shot straight up from the clearing, pivoted its rotors, and shot away from the forest. Sounded an awful lot like someone cheering as it roared away, strands of fire leaping in its wake.
“I suppose I shall have to add a supplemental line for hazard pay in our next budget,” Loredana murmured.
“Only if you want to hire a replacement when he gets himself blown up.” I didn’t feel any broken bones. Loredana looked good—duh, I meant in the injury sense—and Bowen was busy checking his unsheathed sword for damage. “Everybody else okay?”
“Nary a bruise,” Wilhelmina said. “I couldn’t have prayed for a softer landing.”
Probably because she was only now disembarking from Niall’s burly arms. She seemed to be taking her sweet time. As soon as her shoes touched dirt, she got on tiptoe and grabbed Niall’s chin. She planted a great big smooch on his cheek.
Niall’s face went red as his hair, an impressive feat, given that everything in the clearing was colored a flickering orange from the flames.
“Devotees abound.” Bowen chuckled and shook his head. “Onward, then?”
I was gonna give a great speech about the need to stick together, watch each other’s backs, and even give Bowen and Wilhelmina a chance to pray for us—if they were so inclined—when the air in the center of the clearing whipped up into a dust devil. A person-sized one. White light exploded from a pinprick, expanding into a translucent globe with a black void at its middle.
By the time we all took cover, the light and wind abated. A man stood in its place, clad in an all-black outfit, including fingerless gloves with rubber-reinforced knuckles. The tall collar of his compression shirt added to the mysterious, special agenty look, topped off by a mask that covered his face from the bridge of his nose down. Deep brown eyes widened.
“Ah,” Loredana said. “Very good.”
Dominic pulled down the mask and squinted through the smoke. “You all look awful. Am I too late for the battle?”
“Seriously?” I threw my arms wide open. Bowen had to duck, because otherwise I would have taken his head off with the ice gun. “That maniac pilot nearly killed us, and you could’ve—Argh! It would’ve been so easy to—! Just beamed us in without—!”
“Mercury.” Loredana put both hands on my shoulders. She locked her gaze with mine. “Let’s not dwell on that. We have the mission.”
I blew out a breath. “Okay fine.” I swiped soot from her face. She could have been reading for a football game—or rugby, or whatever. “But after this, we go somewhere cool and wet. No heat. No fires. A chilly cruise.”
She smiled. “I shall hold you to your promise, after we kill our prey.”
What a romantic she was.